“I never thought I’d see the day …” is a common response when people learn that free speech on college campuses is an issue entering the courtroom. Indeed, it is shocking to see students struggling to exercise their First Amendment rights, especially at public, taxpayer-funded colleges and universities.
These cases usually begin with an incident in which a student or group of students are exercising their First Amendment rights and are approached by campus police or the school's administration because they are in violation of campus rules or restricted in some other way. From there, students usually seek counsel from organizations like Young Americans for Liberty and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and, if they have a legitimate grievance, then fight back.
In 2017, there were numerous incidents of restriction, but five, in particular, that stand out for reaching the judicial branch in a plea for restoring constitutional rights.
University of California, Berkeley
YAL filed a federal lawsuit in December against the University of California system for rejecting recognition status to the YAL chapter on the Berkeley campus. The YAL chapter applied for "Recognized Student Organization" status and was denied because they were deemed to be too similar to another organization. Meanwhile, multiple similar progressive organizations existed on campus.
The attorneys at Alliance Defending Freedom representing the YAL chapter explained in the lawsuit that the university has previously approved other student groups with similar beliefs like “Students for Hillary at Berkeley,” “Progressive Student Association,” “Cal Berkeley Democrats,” “Socialist Alternative at Berkeley,” and so on. Based on this, it is evident that UC Berkeley has a double standard and applies the "similarity" rule however they see fit. This is nothing but an incident of viewpoint discrimination.
Kellogg Community College
In January, three students representing YAL were arrested by Kellogg Community College campus police for handing out pocket-sized copies of the U.S. Constitution. They were told they were violating the Student Code of Conduct by Drew Hutchinson, the manager of Student Life, because they did not have permission from the school before engaging in “expressive activity.”
The students were accused of impeding other students from accessing education even though they were not blocking any buildings or pathways. When the students refused to stop and asserted their First Amendment rights, they were arrested, charged with trespassing, and jailed for the night.
ADF filed a lawsuit against the school, alleging that the actions of campus officials violated the First and 14th Amendments. “Free speech is a right, not a privilege that can be censored by university officials on a public campus,” ADF said in a press release regarding the case.
Los Angeles Pierce College
Kevin Shaw, a student and YAL member at Pierce College in Los Angeles, was told that he could not pass out copies of the U.S. Constitution because he was not in the university’s “free speech zone." Furthermore, he had not obtained the required permit to be in said “free speech zone.”
Since then, Shaw filed a lawsuit against the university challenging the free speech zone and other speech code regulations. According to FIRE, because “Pierce is one of nine campuses in the Los Angeles Community College District, Shaw's suit also challenges a district-wide policy requiring each campus to designate free speech zones" where student speech is to be quarantined.
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
The College Republicans at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville filed a lawsuit against their university because of restrictive speech policies. The campus has a “free speech zone” of approximately 905 square feet or "0.0013 percent" of campus, according to the College Republicans' lawsuit. Furthermore, the school requires that one first obtain permission before using the free speech zone. The student activists claim they are suing because the burdensome restrictions hold them back from “promoting and advocating for conservative values."
Wichita State University
Wichita State University’s Student Government Association denied official recognition to a prospective chapter of YAL due to the group’s political beliefs. The application for recognition was filed by student Maria Church. According to FIRE, the “SGA senators questioned Church about the prospective organization’s political positions, the issues on which it would focus, its affiliations with YAL chapters on other campuses, and the group’s views on the First Amendment.”
After receiving a letter from representatives at FIRE, Teri Hall, the vice president for Student Affairs, petitioned the SGA’s judicial branch to overturn SGA’s decision and granted YAL official recognition.
According to FIRE’s 2017 annual report, “32.3 percent of the 461 colleges and universities analyzed maintain policies that seriously infringe upon the free speech rights of students.” While that number has decreased from last year’s 29.6 percent, it is still alarming that restricted free speech is the norm at hundreds of colleges nationwide. These lawsuits represent the fight to bring that statistic down and to put an end to these campuses’ unconstitutional policies.
Kelsey Carroll is a student at Indiana University — Purdue University Fort Wayne, studying communications and political science. She is a media ambassador and chapter president for Young Americans for Liberty.