Public university campuses are supposed to be places where the free exchange of ideas can thrive. Students have the right to express their beliefs, and university officials must respect their freedom of speech.
Unfortunately, some professors disregard students’ rights to share their views. And at California State University, Fresno, one professor went to great lengths to censor the speech of pro-life students.
This professor targeted a group of students because he didn’t like what they had to say—a clear violation of the First Amendment. Alliance Defending Freedom made sure the professor didn’t get a free pass. Read on to learn more about the case.
What is Fresno State Students for Life, and who is Bernadette Tasy?
Students for Life is an organization dedicated to protecting unborn lives all around the world. The organization serves pro-life student groups on 1,400 campuses across the country, including middle schools, high schools, colleges, medical schools, and law schools.
One of these groups is Fresno State Students for Life, a pro-life student group on the campus of California State University, Fresno.
In 2017, Fresno State student Bernadette Tasy was serving as president of the campus’s Students for Life chapter. She and another student, Jesus Herrera, received permission from the university for their group to write positive, life-affirming messages in chalk on the sidewalk near the library.
But what was supposed to be an opportunity to share positive messages with students, faculty, and other members of the public quickly turned sideways when a professor angrily challenged them.
As Bernadette, Jesus, and other members of Fresno State Students for Life were finishing writing their pro-life messages, the professor confronted Bernadette. He claimed that she and her student group could not write messages on the sidewalk and that they could only express their views in the “free speech area”—which the university had eliminated almost two years earlier.
Bernadette explained that she had received permission from the university to write the messages, but the professor remained unpersuaded. He threatened to return and erase the chalk.
A few minutes later, Bernadette returned to the area and saw the professor talking to a group of students. She later learned that he had asked some students from his 8:00 a.m. class to erase and deface the life-affirming messages with him.
Bernadette noticed multiple students erasing the messages, and she asked them what they were doing. They told her that the professor had instructed them to “get rid of” them.
Jesus also observed another student using chalk to write pro-abortion messages on the sidewalk near the library, and Bernadette determined that the student had stolen the chalk she had bought to write those messages. Bernadette even watched the professor erase a message himself. On top of all that, he claimed that his censorship of pro-life views was “part of free speech.”
Just before Bernadette left the area, the professor told her that “college campuses are not free speech areas.” When Bernadette returned to the area later, she saw that many of the messages had been fully erased and others had been obscured.
Watch Bernadette’s recording of the incident below:
Because of this blatant violation of the students’ rights, Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit against the professor on behalf of Bernadette, Jesus, and Fresno State Students for Life. And the professor’s conduct was so exceptionally unconstitutional that Fresno State’s president issued a statement supporting Bernadette, Jesus, and the rest of Students for Life.
“Free speech on campus is not limited to a ‘free speech zone’ or any other narrowly defined area,” the university president said. “Those disagreeing with the students’ message have a right to their own speech, but they do not have the right to erase or stifle someone else’s speech under the guise of their own right to free speech.”
After filing the suit, ADF attorneys secured a favorable settlement in a major victory for free speech. The professor was ordered never again to interfere in the activities of Students for Life, and he consented to undergo First Amendment training by ADF attorneys. In addition, he agreed to pay almost $26,000 in attorneys’ fees and $2,000 in damages.
The bold stand of Bernadette and her peers produced concrete results strengthening the culture of free speech at Fresno State. But their organization’s efforts had another effect, something far greater.
Jessica Riojas was a junior at Fresno State when she happened across a campus display created by Students for Life. Jessica didn’t have strong opinions about abortion, but she found the display interesting and decided to pick up up a tiny doll of an unborn baby from the group’s table.
Weeks later, Jessica learned she was pregnant. A Planned Parenthood clinic offered her just one option: abortion. Jessica felt lost, and she needed time to think. Over the weeks that followed, she couldn’t get the image of the baby doll out of her head. She had hung it on the rear-view mirror in her car, and it served as a constant reminder that her baby was a human being.
Next fall, Jessica’s daughter Eden was born. And not only did Jessica choose life; she also chose to advocate for life on campus. After searching for Fresno State Students for Life on Facebook, Jessica returned to the group’s table to share her story. She joined the club and later became its vice president.
Years later, Jessica finds joy in encouraging other students facing unexpected pregnancies. “They just want some kind of relief,” she says. “They just want a face to say, ‘You know what? There’s another option.’”
- May 2017: An assistant professor gathered students to help him erase and deface messages written by Bernadette, Jesus, and other members of Fresno State Students for Life. ADF attorneys then filed a lawsuit against the professor.
- November 2017: ADF attorneys secured a positive settlement. Ultimately, the professor agreed to pay almost $28,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees, undergo First Amendment training from ADF employees, and no longer interfere with the expression of Fresno State Students for Life.
The bottom line
Students don’t give up their First Amendment rights when they step onto a public campus. Professors cannot prevent students from expressing their beliefs just because they disagree. And when students have the courage to take a stand and insist that their rights be respected, they can bless untold numbers of others—even in unexpected ways.