Events at Public Universities vs. Private Universities
Governmental agencies, including public higher education institutions, are directly bound by the First Amendment to uphold the right to free speech. Because private schools are not agencies of the state or federal government, private schools may generally impose whatever restrictions they wish on speech and on visitors to their campuses.
Several public universities have denied requests from “controversial” speakers over the last few years, citing the risk of violence similar to what happened in Charlottesville, Va. in 2017 as cause to invoke prior restraint in the name of public safety. Attempts to block such speakers from their campuses have resulted in several successful lawsuits against the universities.
Cancelation is a last resort when the university, despite taking all reasonable steps, believes that it cannot protect the safety of its students, staff, and faculty. Events can never be legally canceled based on the content of the speaker’s message.
Event Fees and Registered Student Organizations
The university does not charge any venue-related fees based on a Registered Student Organization’s invited speaker’s speech content. Registered Student Organizations must abide by the appropriate policies and procedures for associated fees, which vary based upon venue, event security, sound equipment, etc. Registered Student Organizations may charge admission or other fees to cover their event costs.
Activism is very much a part of the higher education environment and UNLV encourages expression in protest to other expression. UNLV encourages all who engage in protest activity to do so safely. Here are some reminders on how to protest safely:
- Avoid activity that infringes on the rights of others, such as blocking and/or preventing movement or access of others.
- Comply with Clark County Ordinance 12.30.010 which prohibits possession of certain items at public protests, demonstrations, rallies and other public assemblies.
- Individuals or groups engaging in “counter protest” to a reserved event or protest activity must remain a minimum of 30 feet away from the event. Protesting an event is permissible as long as the speaker’s right to free speech and the audience’s right to see and hear a speaker are not violated.
- Adhere to the Outdoor Noise Policy, which outlines specifications for amplified sound. This activity is prohibited from interfering with UNLV’s mission of teaching and learning.
- Follow the lawful instructions of police officers or public officials, such as staying behind barricades and dispersing from an area declared an unlawful assembly. It is against the law to disobey a lawful order from a police officer.
- Leave the area when others are engaging in illegal activities or acts of violence. Your presence may be interpreted as participating in that activity and have legal consequences.
- Refrain from speech that incites others to commit acts of violence such as assaulting others or destroying property.
- Be aware that some behavior, while not deemed unlawful, may violate the Student Code of Conduct with ramifications that impact a student’s academic standing.
Freedom of speech does not give someone the right to drown out the words and speech of others. This is sometimes referred to as the “heckler’s veto.” Individuals who interrupt events will be asked to cease the behavior and, if it persists, the individual may be asked to leave or may be escorted out of the venue.
Time, Place, and Manner Restrictions Related to Protests
The Supreme Court has said that public entities like UNLV have discretion in regulating the “time, place, and manner” of speech. The right to speak on UNLV’s campuses is not the right to speak at any time, any place and in any manner that an individual desires. These restrictions do not vary depending on the views or ideas being expressed but are to ensure speech occurs in a way that does not disrupt the university’s educational mission or endanger public safety.
Individuals or groups engaging in “counter protest” to a reserved event or protest activity must remain a minimum of 30 feet away from the event. Protesting an event is permissible as long as the speaker’s right to free speech and the audience’s right to see and hear a speaker are not violated.
Review UNLV’s Policy on Speech and Advocacy in Public Areas and the procedures related to UNLV Policy on Speech and Advocacy in Public Areas.
“Free Speech Zone” at UNLV?
There is no “free speech zone” or designated space that limits where expression can take place on UNLV’s campuses. However, the university retains the discretion in regulating time, place and manner for such activities. Speech can be expressed on campus in outdoor spaces, with limited restrictions and must adhere to standards related to using amplified sound. Some outdoor spaces can be reserved and individuals and groups reserving space have priority.
UNLV Policy on Speech and Advocacy in Public Places requires that free speech activities:
- take place at least 20 feet from entrances and exits of campus buildings and parking lots;
- do not restrict movement or limit access to and from entrances to buildings or parking lots; and
- do not restrict movement on walkways.
There are specific locations for leaflet distribution and signature gathering for petitions. See Section 9 – Solicitation of Signatures in the Guidelines for Scheduling University Facilities for more information related to these activities.