Public universities targeted for violating free speech against religious students

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Nearly 50 public universities have been sent legal letters claiming their policies violate the free speech rights of students.

The letters are asking university administrators to fix the policies or face litigation, said Kevin Theriot, senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, which has initiated a new campaign targeting what it is calling "unconstitutional policies." The initiative is part of the legal organization's Speak Up Movement project, which monitors free speech incidents nationwide.

The two Southern California campuses already targeted are the University of California, Riverside and the University of California, Los Angeles. Both have speech codes that ADF believes are in violation of federal law.

The letters are the first of more than 160 expected to be sent out to college and university administrators. The campuses were identified after an ADF staff member reviewed the policies at each university. The group plans to replicate the campaign on community colleges in the future.

"We've seen an up tick in discrimination against conservative students, and especially Christian students, on the part of college administrators and that includes administration and faculty that are singling out students that don't tow their liberal party line for discrimination," Theriot said.

Violations include speech restrictions in classrooms or other campus areas, rules that force student clubs to accept voting members and officers that don't agree with the clubs' beliefs, and policies that allow non-religious student groups to use student activity fees but exclude religious student groups even though the students in those groups have contributed to the fees.

"I think it's gotten progressively worse," the ADF attorney said. "It has been a problem. There have been restrictions on speech of students on public school campuses for 40 years now."

In the 1960s and '70s that discrimination came from conservative administrators who were cracking down on the mostly liberal anti-war movement protests.

"That has flipped now, and now, generally speaking, administration officials are liberal, and they are restricting the rights of conservative students," Theriot said. "The law has not changed. The students, no matter whether you are conservative or liberal, all have—religious, atheists or whatever—they have First Amendment rights and have a great deal of First Amendment rights on campus."

In addition to the ideological flop between educators and students, Theriot said administrators are increasingly adopting European standards, which advocate that censorship is acceptable in the case of offensive speech.

"There is an idea that pervades our society as a whole, not just campuses, that speech that might offend somebody somehow is not worthy of protection," Theriot said. "Whereas university campuses are supposed to be marketplaces of ideas, but instead they often become places of censorship."

Besides being in violation of the U.S. Constitution, the conservative attorney said such policies are too subjective, giving public servants the right to determine what speech they deem acceptable.

"What is hate speech? Is it expressing disagreement with you, what you believe or what you do? Is that hate speech?" he said. "No, I don't think so. It might be offensive to you, but that's the exact kind of speech that the First Amendment was designed to protect. We don't need protection for speech that everyone agrees with."

In the two local cases, representatives from UC Riverside said in a response letter that their policies were already under review and that ADFs concerns were noted, but they would not be responding directly to the request. UCLA responded by asking for more time to review their policies.

"We are attempting to give universities the opportunity to fix those without having to go through the pain of litigation," he said. "But if they don't, then we will actively be pursuing clients to actually fix them, if we need to."

Theriot said about 20 campuses have responded to the letters, and eight have made positive changes to their policies.

"Overall, I hope it increases the knowledge of university administrators who may not even be aware that some of these policies are on the books and are chilling the speech rights and religious freedoms of their students who look at them and say, 'I can't do that, I won't even try.'"

While the number of cases has escalated across the country, Theriot acknowledged that California had been a hotbed of student freedom cases, including numerous ones filed against high school campuses.

In March, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case brought by a fraternity and sorority that were challenging San Diego State University's policy that said the Christian clubs had to admit anyone who wanted to join in order to be recognized as an official club, regardless of their religious beliefs. Leadership also had to be opened up to anyone, including atheists or gays and lesbians.

Theriot said the court declined to hear the case since SDSU modified the policy to apply to all clubs, meaning the religious clubs were not being singled out.

A similar case was filed against University of California, Hastings College of the Law. Other prominent California college cases have included admission requirements for Christian schools that teach creation instead of evolution and speech zone requirements for pro-life groups.

"It says to me that California really is hostile to Christianity, at least their administrators are," Theriot said. "I think in general the California populace is not, but you've got the people in control that are forted up in the major cities that really are hostile to conservatives and, especially, Christian point of view, so they enact policies that appear neutral on their face but are really designed to go after the Christian clubs."

For more information about the campaign, visit www.speakupmovement.org.