University of Nevada, Reno, students, staff and officials gathered Thursday, Nov. 2, in the third-floor heart at the Joe Crowley Student Union for a Diversity Dialogues session hosted by The Center, a university organization that implements programs to promote an open, safe and inclusive environment on campus. Diversity Dialogues is just one of their initiatives to better prepare students for systemic racial issues outside the university that do not lend themselves to clear solutions.
The gathering centered around the first amendment and featured keynote speakers Mary Phelps Dugan, General Counsel for the University of Nevada, and Patrick File, assistant professor of media law at the Reynolds School of Journalism.
Charged with the tasks of representing the university in any legal proceedings and advising the university administration, Dugan’s office has faced a tumultuous semester. One of the more photographed faces at the Unite the Right white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August was UNR student Peter Cvjetanovic. Dugan and other university representatives found no constitutional basis upon which to expel Cvjetanovic and he remains studying on campus, though he did resign from a position with Campus Escort on Aug. 28.
“On the record, I think speech that was used at Charlottesville was reprehensible, was abhorrent, and the sort of thing I never want to hear,” Dugan said when confronted by a student questioning that decision. “I don’t know what Peter said, but he said it there, and he didn’t say it here.”
Protections within the First Amendment are at the forefront of many headlines regarding UNR this fall. The Church Fine Arts’ graffiti stairwell was tagged with several swastikas and the message “[is] this political enough for you?” on Oct. 12.
Prior to that incident, Kevin McReynolds, a UNR graduate student and former Nevada Wolf Pack football player was stopped by campus police on Sept. 24, and officer Adam Wilson jokingly remarked, “I’m just going to shoot him if this goes sideways because f— that.”
The comment was in reference to McReynolds’ 6-foot-2-inch, 280 pound frame.
UNR Police Chief Adam Garcia issued another public apology Monday, Oct. 30 after an officer attended a Halloween party in a costume meant to mock Nevada alumnus Colin Kaepernick. The officer donned an afro wig, a false nose, a painted beard and a cardboard sign that read “Will stand for Food.”
Professor File conveyed to the group that the First Amendment is often a double-edged sword in terms of protected speech. He did so by explaining the Matal v. Tam Supreme Court case (2017) which overturned a prohibition on registering trademarks that may disparage persons, institutions, or beliefs with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. This same prohibition was instrumental in the Washington Redskins losing their trademark protection in 2015 because their team name and logo may denigrate Native Americans.
However, Simon Tam argued for his right to trademark “The Slants” for his all Asian American band in an attempt to reclaim the slur, and the Supreme Court agreed.
“So by overturning that decision by the USPTO, he gets to name his band The Slants and protect it,” File said. “That decision will also likely allow the Washington Redskins to reclaim and protect their trademark.”
File explained that the First Amendment can simultaneously empower an individual to take back a term that is disparaging to him and people like him, but also open an avenue for use of disparaging terms by those with no altruistic value behind their work.
Jody Lykes is the student development coordinator at The Center and attended Diversity Dialogues. Lykes argued to the crowd that the university’s public apology letters to students and staff after each of these events were produced out of veiled concern and have amounted to no policy changes. He shed light on the African American experience on the UNR campus and narrowly focused on Dugan, the university attorney, during his critique.
“On this campus, right now, I feel like a burden,” said Lykes.
Dugan responded by citing the failures of speech codes across American universities in the 1990s, most of which were found unconstitutional by the courts. They were largely developed to better protect marginalized groups, but they were often disproportionately used against them rather than majority groups.
“The burden is on us through talking with each other and hearing each other out to decide what’s going to be acceptable within our space,” said Dugan.
Gabriel Selbig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @NevadaSagebrush.