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Supreme Court of the United States

Confronting a Major Threat to the Understanding of the First Amendment

By Sarah Kramer posted on:
October 17, 2017

“We knew that many students disagreed with our messages, but to think that the university was against us seemed like an impossible barrier to overcome.”

That’s what Jacqueline Foran, president of Students for Life at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, wrote after she discovered that university officials had erased the pro-life messages she and her club members had written on their campus sidewalks for National Pro-Life Chalk Day.

Unfortunately, that is an all-too-common scenario that the students at public colleges and universities face. Alliance Defending Freedom represents a number of students who have experienced firsthand what it means for government officials to censor their speech and take away their First Amendment rights. In fact, Bernadette Tasy, the president of Fresno State Students for Life, filmed a professor personally erasing her club’s chalked messages and proclaiming (incorrectly):  “College campuses are not free speech areas.”

 

 

 

But what is uncommon about these students is that they have decided to do something about it. Many students on public college and university campuses do not even know what rights they have. In some cases, students even support (and aid) in the censoring of viewpoints they do not like or that “offend” them. Others simply accept this censorship, not knowing that they have other options.

 

 

“College officials should be partnering with us in educating students on what it means to engage in free speech and why it’s worth protecting, not arresting us.”

Public university campuses across the country have put in place policies that limit student speech. These include “speech zone policies,” which are used to limit free speech and expressive activities to small, out-of-the-way areas of campus.

These policies have been used against students such as Michelle Gregoire, who was arrested for handing out copies of the Constitution of the United States on campus. She had been peacefully distributing copies on a public sidewalk at Kellogg Community College in Michigan with a group, when campus police approached them and told them they must relocate to the speech zone. When they explained that they had a First Amendment right to be there, the officers arrested Michelle and two associates for “trespassing.”

"We were informed that the committee had denied [our pro-life group] official club status. When we asked for their reason for our denial, we were met with even more silence."

Universities also often implement policies that give unbridled discretion to university officials to decide which viewpoints to permit on campus and which to exclude.

For example, college officials denied Queens College Students for Life official club status, without giving any explanation. Queens College has pro-choice student clubs on campus, but college officials seemed uninterested in recognizing a pro-life club. Thankfully, in response to an ADF lawsuit, Queens College recognized Students for Life as an official student organization. But the lawsuit is ongoing because under existing policies, college officials could still deny the pro-life group equal treatment in student activity funding or even take away their club status at any time.

We must work to ensure that college and university students understand their constitutional rights and that their university officials defend – not limit – those rights.

The unfortunate effects of policies like those mentioned above are that college students are taught that First Amendment rights don’t matter, that they aren’t worth defending, and that they can be limited or taken away at the whim of a government official.

Today’s college students will become tomorrow’s voters, legislators, and government officials. And if students see a culture that respects these rights in college, they can carry that understanding with them into the larger culture.

 

That’s where you come in.

 

Thankfully, we have students who are willing to stand up for their rights. But we need your help to ensure that we can provide them with the free legal help they need to start changing the culture on their campuses—and to start educating their peers on what true freedom looks like. Together with our clients and with your help, we can work to counter university policies that perpetuate a dangerous understanding of the First Amendment. Will you join with us? 


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Sarah Kramer

Sarah Kramer

Digital Content Specialist

Sarah worked as an investigative reporter before joining the Alliance Defending Freedom team.