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Alliance Alert

May 10, 2019

Why Free Speech on Campus Matters

On April 30, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a law that requires state-funded public colleges and universities to adopt policies protecting the freedom of expression for students and faculty on campus. Oklahoma joins Kentucky in meeting the standards of an executive order signed by President Trump last month protecting free speech on college campuses.

Colleges are supposed to be the marketplace of ideas, so why are these laws needed?

Let’s take a look.

In 2016, Georgia Gwinnett College student Chike Uzuegbunam sought to share his faith with his peers by handing out pamphlets in a plaza on campus. A security guard and librarian approached him and told him he wasn’t allowed to do what he was doing outside the school’s “speech zone.”

Chike complied with the school’s speech policy, which meant he had to ask for permission to speak three days in advance and was limited to two tiny areas that make up less than 0.0015 percent of the campus. Even after Chike took the necessary steps, school officials told him his witnessing was “disorderly conduct” and “disturb[ing] the peace and/or comfort of person(s).” Chike’s lawsuit to protect his and other students’ speech at Georgia Gwinnett is still ongoing.

In April of 2017, Fresno State Students for Life received permission to chalk positive, life-affirming messages on the sidewalks leading to the university’s library. As its members finished chalking these messages on the morning of May 2, Gregory Thatcher, a public health professor, confronted them and cited a non-existent rule that they could not chalk messages near the library, and could only express themselves in the so-called “free speech area.”

After club president Bernadette Tasy explained she had university permission to chalk messages in that spot, Thatcher announced that he would return to erase the messages himself. He then recruited at least seven students from his 8:00 a.m. class to erase or deface the pro-life chalk messages. When Bernadette reminded him that the club was acting with full permission, Professor Thatcher walked over to one of the pro-life messages and began erasing it himself, claiming that he was exercising his free speech rights. And he erroneously proclaimed, “College campuses are not free speech areas.”

With the help of ADF, Fresno State Students for Life won their case, and as part of the agreement, Thatcher had to undergo two hours of First Amendment speech training—conducted by ADF Center for Academic Freedom attorneys.

These two situations unfortunately exemplify the speech violations students face on college campuses. And students aren’t the only ones facing restrictive speech codes.

Dr. Nicolas Meriwether of Shawnee State University in Ohio has faced unfair punishment and harassment from students and faculty simply because he believes that biological sex is determined at birth. During a class, Dr. Meriwether responded to a male student’s question by saying, “Yes sir.” Afterwards, the student berated him for “failing” to refer to him as a woman. The student complained, and the university officials charged Dr. Meriwether for creating a “hostile environment” for the student.

Dr. Allan M. Josephson is a nationally recognized expert on child psychology. In 2003, he was given charge of the then-struggling Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Louisville, which he proceeded to build into a prestigious program. In 2017, he spoke at an event at which he discussed treatment approaches for youth experiencing gender dysphoria. When some of Dr. Josephson’s colleagues heard his comments, they demanded the university take disciplinary action. Dr. Josephson was demoted and eventually told his contract would not be renewed in 2019.

While colleges and universities should be the prime marketplace of ideas, they are quickly gaining a reputation as censorship zones. Censorship creates fear and mistrust; the opposite of a society that values free speech.

As lawsuits pertaining to free speech on campus mounted, the Trump administration saw fit to issue an executive order aimed at protecting the First Amendment freedom by removing federal funds from public universities that violate speech rights. In fact, four ADF clients, including Bernadette Tasy, attended the speech at which President Trump announced the executive order.

ADF Center for Academic Freedom Director Tyson Langhofer had this to say about the order:

The administration is right to recognize the threats to freedom of speech on public university campuses and the need to do something about preserving the marketplace of ideas. In the course of winning more than 400 legal victories since 2006, the ADF Center for Academic Freedom has continued to encounter massive free speech and other First Amendment violations, unconstitutional policies, and many repeat offenders.

We appreciate the administration’s understanding of this problem as well as actions it has taken to help, including the briefs that the Department of Justice has filed in support of ADF clients who have stood up for their freedoms in the face of having those freedoms jeopardized. Today’s university students will be tomorrow’s voters and civic leaders. That’s why it’s so important that public colleges and universities exemplify the First Amendment values they are supposed to be teaching to students.

With this in mind, a couple of states began to follow suit. Five days after President Trump announced the executive order, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin signed a law that required public colleges and universities to protect speech rights on campus. A month later, Oklahoma also stood up for speech rights on campus.

As Langhofer points out, students take what they learn in college and apply it to their careers. If students are learning to censor speech, they are learning to foster an environment of fear and mistrust. Without free speech, there’s little chance of freedom. That’s why the answer to censorship is most always more speech.

  • Dr. Allan Josephson
  • Dr. Nicholas Meriwether
  • Bernadette Tasy
  • Chike Uzuegbunam
  • free speech
  • Friday Feature
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