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Supreme Court of the United States

The Untold Story Behind Abby Johnson’s Lecture at CU-Boulder

By Travis Barham posted on:
October 17, 2017

In an era when conservatives are often disinvited or shouted down at universities, something remarkable occurred in Boulder, Colorado. Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director and outspoken pro-life advocate spoke at the overwhelmingly left-leaning University of Colorado Boulder.

But missing from this coverage is the story of how this successful event almost never got off the ground, except for the efforts of a fledging Students for Life chapter and Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).

This story begins in January when Students for Life (SFL) realized it would need funding for Ms. Johnson’s lecture. Like other student groups, SFL sought funding from the Cultural Events Board, one of the entities that allocates the student activity fee that all students pay each semester. 

A few weeks later, SFL was surprised to receive seven questions from the Board, many of which focused on SFL’s and Ms. Johnson’s pro-life views. For example, the Board asked if SFL would “be willing to find another speaker for this event who would be able to address the multi-faceted issue [of abortion] without attacking the organi­zation of Planned Parenthood.” It also questioned whether Ms. Johnson, whose back­ground as a former Planned Parenthood clinic director is unique, would present “an educational perspective” on the abortion debate. 

In mid-February, after answering these questions, SFL was disappointed to learn that the Board had denied its funding request. Again, the Board clearly had a prob­lem with SFL’s pro-life views. The Board explained its decision by noting that its “main reason for declining funding is a concern for a lack of educational dialogue created around the topic of pro-life at the event.” Why did this event fail to create this dialogue? The Board explained:  “The speaker as presented will talk about Planned Parenthood abortion practices but will not provide an unbiased view on pro-life issues.” So to the Board, a pro-life speaker—who has seen both sides of Planned Parenthood—did not provide an educational perspective. Interesting.

This decision became even more interesting after SFL contacted Students for Life of America, which then pointed them to (ADF). This was because we discovered the speakers the Board had previously funded. It funded a lecture from Angela Davis—recipient of the Lenin Peace Prize and former leader of the Communist Party USA—without requiring that the event also champion free market economics. It funded a presentation from transgender activist Janet Mock without also requiring the event to present a biblical view of human sexuality. It funded an event with Cornel West without asking the organizers to invite someone like Thomas Sowell. And it funded a speech from Jose Antonio Vargas, a pro-illegal immigration activist, without de­manding that the event also include a pro-border security perspective. So the “unbi­ased view” rule only applied to a pro-life speaker.

At this point, it was clear that the Board had violated the First Amendment. Since at least its 1995 Rosenberger decision, the Supreme Court has ruled that universities cannot deny a group student activity fee funds because of its views. It made this even clearer in its 2000 Southworth decision when it ruled that universities can collect these fees as long as they distribute them in a viewpoint-neutral way (i.e., if they give all viewpoints an equal chance at getting funding). So on March 1st, ADF wrote a letter highlighting the Board’s viewpoint-discriminatory decision and asking the Univer­sity’s president and high-ranking administrators to intervene.

To their credit, those administrators responded, as the Board soon informed SFL that, because of ADF’s letter, it “has decided to fund the Abby Johnson event.” Eventually, SFL received over 98% of the funding it requested, funding that was es­sential to making the lecture a success.

When SFL began planning Abby Johnson’s lecture, it simply wanted to give its campus a unique perspective on the need to protect unborn life from the scourge of abortion. But to do this, it also had to give campus officials a unique lesson on the need to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to free speech. Hope­fully, this lesson—that all perspectives must have equal access to funding—is one that CU-Boulder will not soon forget.

Travis Barham

Travis Barham

Senior Counsel

Travis C. Barham serves as senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, where he plays a key role with the ADF Center for Academic Freedom.