Higher Ed & the 1st Amendment


RU Speechless?

Freedom of speech is a  fundamental right guaranteed under the Virginia Constitution, the First Amendment of the US Bill of Rights and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But freedom of speech is often not recognized in the one place where it ought to be respected the most:  A college campus in the USA.

For centuries, and for generations, unpopular speech has been most protected on college campuses.  For instance, a photo of President Teddy Roosevelt (above) shows a speech he gave defending Professor John Bassett on the Duke University campus in 1903. Bassett  was about to be fired for saying he thought  Booker T. Washington (an African American leader) was the greatest person the South had ever produced except Robert E. Lee.

When the Duke board refused to fire Bassett, Roosevelt said:

“You stand for Academic Freedom, for the right of private judgment, for a duty more incumbent upon the scholar than upon any other man, to tell the truth as he sees it, to claim for himself and to give to others the largest liberty in seeking after the truth.”

It’s been a long time since any similarly strong defense of campus speech has taken place. Today many universities simply refuse to recognize First Amendment rights until they are forced to do so by a court. At Radford University, where this blog originates,  avenues for student expression are strictly limited in ways that are obviously unconstitutional. Continue reading

Profs under fire

A University of Kansas journalism professor was placed on indefinite administrative leave Friday for a tweet he wrote about the Navy Yard shootings which said, “blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters.”    (AP Sept. 20, 2013)

An outspoken Naval Academy professor will return to the classroom Wednesday after the academy closed an investigation spurred by complaints from midshipmen. Academy officials declined to provide details of the complaints against English professor Bruce Fleming, saying he should be afforded privacy and a presumption of innocence. “The investigation concluded and determined that Professor Fleming should return to his normal teaching duties,” Cmdr. John Schofield, an academy spokesman, said Tuesday.  (Baltimore Sun, Sept. 17, 2013)



USA Today covers RU Speechless



Bulletin boards have become a battleground at Radford University in Radford, Va., with students claiming university policies restrict their First Amendment rights.

The policy in question requires university approval for any flier students wish to hang on campus bulletin boards. Over the past semester, journalism professor Bill Kovarik has led a small movement called RU Speechless?, which protests this regulation, among other campus “censorship” policies, as prior restraint.


Story Published May 8, 2013 

Tartan covers RU Speechless

Speechles1 Speechless2Students in the First Amendment and Higher Education class are bearing flyers, a hard-hitting message and symbolically wearing red duct tape over their mouths, and have been rallying with faculty and other involved and driven students with the campaign they call “RU Speechless.”

RU Free Speech protest May 1

To protest Radford University policies restricting freedom of speech on campus, students and faculty rallied outside the Hurlburt student on May 1, 2013.

With the Faculty Senate, the Council of Deans and the Student Government Association all demanding reform of RU’s archaic prior restraint policies, and legal analysis showing clear faults in the policies, the RU administration has consistently shown bad faith in refusing to discuss issues.

The highlight of the protest was the signing of a large poster by dozens of students (right in the first photo) and an attempt by Prof. Kovarik to hand a flyer to Ken Bonk, the administrator who is in charge of enforcing anti-free speech policies at RU. Not only did Bonk refuse to accept the flyer, but he fled rapidly into the building while shouting something about errors in the flyer that he refused to discuss.


The crew of the May 1 protest (photo by Prof. Martin, who was also present).










Ken Bonk flees from Prof. Kovarik, who is attempting to hand him a flyer about Free Speech rights on campus, during the May 1 protest.


Suggestion: more bulletin boards

bulletin.board.RUHere’s one suggestion:  If the bulletin board space is so crowded at RU that it has to be censored, then why not expand the opportunities to post bulletins without censorship?

Details on the RUspeechless Facebook page.

They would only cost a few hundred dollars each.  And here’s what an outdoor bulletin board would look like.


Frat signs? No problem for Lexington

Frat.Lex.OXPh Frat.Lex.EAE Frat.Lexington

On a spring day in Lexington, Va., fraternity row openly sports Greek letters without any apparent unease from town officials. In fact, two of these houses are across the street from the police station.   The “animal house” fraternity is around the corner.  Just how similar signs might — in some imaginary universe — represent a threat to the peace and dignity of the City of Radford is one of life’s mysteries.  Yet the city persists not only in maintaing its unconstitutional fraternity sign ban,  but also in refusing to discuss the issues.

AAUP flyer on the May 1 protest

This is the American Association of University Professors flyer which The First Amendment / Higher Education class did not create.  However, who would argue that the AAUP does not have every right to create and distribute this flyer on campus?   Is it overstated?  Obviously.  But  sometimes that’s the point of the “vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials” protected in the New York Times v Sullivan decision.    — Prof. Kovarik.


(1) “Free speech zones” that limit speech to tiny designated areas.

(2) Censorship of all postings on bulletin boards for faculty and students, requiring pre-stamping.

(3)  Censorship of everything posted in the dorms.

(4) Offering only about 12 “public” bulletin boards (limited to pre-stamped postings) on the entire campus located in out of the way places where students rarely go like the basement of Heth Hall.

(5)  Tight control of all email lists (but open to commercial interests).

(6) Prohibition of anyone handing out flyers or other materials anywhere on campus except from pre-approved tables in and around the Bonnie.

(7)  Collaboration with the city to limit the signs students can place on student housing.

[Co-sponsored by RU Chapter of the AAUP]


Mayday:  Wed. May 1st

Bonnie Plaza 10 AM to 1