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After the Election: Defending the First Amendment on Campus

October 17, 2017
By Casey Mattox 

What happens on campus doesn’t stay on campus. And that is particularly concerning because the First Amendment is under assault on public university campuses.

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is engaged in critical legal battles to defend religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and the family. But even if we prevail in every one of those cases today, the threats to freedom will not end. It will still remain to the next generation to continue to defend those same freedoms against those who would attack them in their generation.

Today’s college students will be tomorrow’s legislators, judges, federal bureaucrats, municipal human rights commissioners, and voters. This is why it is so critical that today’s college students be taught to value the First Amendment – and why it should concern all of us that they are not.

The examples of attacks on the First Amendment on public university campuses abound. North Carolina State required students to apply for permission 5 days in advance of any written or even oral communication anywhere on campus. Iowa State told students that they could be expelled for “harassment” if other students did not believe their speech was “necessary” or on a “legitimate topic,” and that failure to pledge compliance with this policy would place a hold on their graduation. California State University – Los Angeles faculty and administrators tried several ways to stop Young Americans for Freedom from bringing Ben Shapiro to campus, ultimately resulting in faculty members helping to organize a mob to physically block entrance into the event.

And what’s worse is that these examples are not uncommon, they’re just recent.

Universities are supposed to be the marketplace of ideas. But as with any market, when the heavy hand of government picks winners and losers, the market no longer works properly and the ideas produced will suffer.

Public universities teach not only in the classroom, but by example. As government actors themselves, faculty and administrators not only tell but also show students how the First Amendment is supposed to work. But the lessons that are being taught to tomorrow’s generation on today’s campuses are that:  

  • Speech that offends should be prohibited;
  • The First Amendment is a right subject to government approval. So administrators can require advance permission to speak and strictly limit when and where people can speak;
  • That government can force you to contribute funds for causes that violate your conscience and even use that money to skew the debate against your own views;
  • It is “discrimination” for religious and political student groups to choose leaders that share their beliefs; and
  • Christian values are not welcome … at least in some professions.  

After the election, we can expect these threats to persist and even worsen on many campuses as many administrators predictably respond to our deepening cultural divisions by seeking not to increase dialogue, but by trying to control expression, create “safe spaces,” and avoid “offense.”

The courts, and the new judges that the next President will appoint, will continue to be the primary place where these battles are waged. But state and federal legislators will also have a substantial role in ensuring that First Amendment rights are respected on campus.

One of the largest expenses of state government is higher education. Some states have passed legislation prohibiting universities from restricting free speech and religious freedom on campus. I anticipate a growing trend of state legislatures seeking to ensure that their campuses respect First Amendment rights of students and faculty.

Members of Congress and the new Administration will also have the opportunity to help restore a respect for freedom on campus. While President Obama sometimes spoke glowingly about the value of free speech on campus, criticizing “safe spaces,” his Administration also pressed for new speech codes on campus through faulty and unconstitutional applications of Title IX. The new Administration has an opportunity to support freedom on campus not just in rhetoric, but also in reality.

Congress is also overdue to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, the federal law governing funding of student financial aid programs. Reconsideration of the law – and the massive amount of taxpayer dollars it provides to universities – affords members of Congress an opportunity to ensure that the education taxpayers are paying for includes a campus environment where freedom of speech and religious freedom are modeled for the next generation.

Ronald Reagan said:

“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”

If we are to pass along freedom to the next generation we must ensure that the campuses where they are taught model those freedoms today. The coming years afford us that opportunity.

Alliance Defending Freedom

Alliance Defending Freedom

Non-profit organization

Alliance Defending Freedom advocates for your right to freely live out your faith