Feb. 2, 2006, Heth Lounge C, 1 pm.

Remarks by Prof. Kovarik

A few weeks ago, as I walked to my first media law class of the semester, I was wondering how to illustrate the importance of freedom of religion, speech and press. This is a struggle that caught fire here in Virginia, in 1776, and it continues every day, all over the world, particularly against dictatorships like those in China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia and others.

To illustrate the importance of these rights, I needed a local example of things that affected students.

And as I walked, I noticed that the signs and flags with Greek fraternity and sorority letters that had been up all weekend were now down. I looked up the university’s housing policy, and I found it has almost a page of regulations about these off campus signs. So after taking the roll in class that day, I asked my media law students what they thought.

Well, the room almost exploded. The students were seething with long-dormant anger. There were lots of comments about this and other speech related issues on campus.

The students were also very interested in what I thought. After all, wasn’t this a contradiction of the First Amendment? I agreed, it seemed fishy.

So I looked up the written policies. In the first place, Radford University’s student handbook expresses strong support for free speech. It is pure poetry. I certainly couldn’t have written a better one. Radford University is a community of scholars and learners in which the ideals of freedom of inquiry, thought, expression and the individual are sustained. With these ideals comes the responsibility of every student to hold him/herself to the standards of the Radford University community set forth in its policies.

Unfortunately, the policy has exceptions, and some of these seem to be small but serious abridgements of the right of free speech. For example:

  • As I mentioned, Greek letters cannot be displayed on frat and sorority houses off campus during the weekdays. The university off campus policy says this is due to a city ordinance, but I talked with the city manager and searched the zoning code, and it turns out, actually, there is no such ordinance. Its an informal policy agreement between RU and the city written into the off campus housing code at RU.
  • Another big exception is that flyers and posters have to be stamped before they can be put up on bulletin boards. My understanding from Heth officials is that this is designed to ensure that RU student groups do not discriminate or solicit or promote drugs or alcohol. So if I were to ask for a stamp for a poster for a group that wants to change the laws about marijuana, or challenge the university’s disciplinary policies, such a poster might be turned down. It’s obvious censorship.
  • Its also inefficient. For example, this past fall, an official RU student club promoting Christian Concerts was unable to get their posters up because the university took too long to stamp them; A similar Tech concert was better advertised here on the RU campus.
  • During last year’s presidential election, campaign posters put up by registered student groups were taken down by RU employees.
  • My understanding is that unofficial student groups cant put messages up. And its worth noting that many students have complained that the barriers to forming official student groups are quite formidable.
  • Another big exception is our “Free Speech” zone – In this case, free speech comes with a long list of rules. You have to apply for a permit to demonstrate a few days in advance and there are lots of things you cant do anyway. The Rowdy Reds cant pass out pamphlets, for example, urging students to attend basketball games. This apparently followed complaints that the Gideons (!) were passing out Bibles (!) in the clock circle.
  • Student media at RU has been through a complicated set of problems, and I don’t have time right now except to say that the administration has tightly controlled the broadcast media and has really not tried to control print and online media at all. Ill be glad to expand on that if needed – I have been worried about the polices related to ROC TV.

Overall, RU is a relatively tolerant place. I want to be sure we keep this in perspective. Generally speaking, I would give it a B- or C+ in terms of free speech compared to other campuses. And of course you don’t get dragged off to jail for criticizing the administration like dissidents in China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia and so on. So I’m not here to disparage the university. I don’t like the policies Ive mentioned above, but there are bigger problems out there, and generally, student media has a large measure of independence.

But even a tempest in a teapot can be a teaching moment. Whether or not frat houses get to hang out their signs matters very little in the long run. But what does matter, a great deal, is that the spirit of freedom be fostered among students. When the lesson is acquiescence to bad rules, I want students to ask why. When the answer is that students have to surrender their primary rights to secondary concerns, lets encourage them to question, to petition, and to demand change.

The bottom line– straight from my patented Old Professor Lecture — is this:

The rights of American citizens are not given to them by the government. A person’s rights are not a privilege, like a drivers license. They are inherent, inalienable, natural rights. When it comes to Constitutionally protected freedoms, the government is here to protect rights, and not protect its own conveniences. And here the university is in the position of the government and the students are in the position of citizens. So even if it’s a little inconvenient to have pamphleteering and chaotic bulletin boards, that’s a small price for freedom.

These rights are recognized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations. (www.un.org/Overview/rights.html) (which article? Anyone know?) Constitutional law is a balance between rights of individuals against the needs of society for order and security.

First Amendment / free speech rights are the most cherished individual rights and occupy what we call a legally preferred position.

Only the most serious, grave threats to public safety or health justify abridgement of free speech rights.

Only compelling state interests can justify time place and manner restrictions, and only if there are reasonable alternatives. Courts have consistently upheld this

“The First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution afford to the citizen and to the press an absolute, unconditional privilege to criticize official conduct despite the harm which may flow from excesses and abuses….” said Justice Arthur Goldberg in the most important free speech case of the century, the New York Times v Sullivan case of 1964.

“It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate. This has been the unmistakable holding of this Court for almost 50 years…” said Justice Abe Fortas in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 1969

In the mid 19th century, John Stuart Mill gave us four reasons why silencing the expression of an opinion is a peculiar evil.

  • A statement believed to be in error may in fact be true
  • A statement in error may have a grain of truth
  • The truth may not be understood but merely held as a prejudice
  • And the collision of error with truth provides a clear and lively impression

Since that time, we have discovered several more.

  • The marketplace of ideas is a lot more efficient than authoritative systems; the Christian rock group’s experience trying to advertise their concert is a good example of that;
  • Free people are more capable of mustering their will to survive, of acting independently for the common good. Saving private Ryan is a great example of that.

And the lesson of that great movie is that people have sacrificed everything they had for our rights. They sacrificed so that we could be sitting here today. Let’s not let them down.

Let’s keep keep asking questions, let’s protect our right of free speech, and the more we learn from the small lessons on campus, the more we can do this with the big issues on a global scale.