First Amendment: In higher education, low tolerance for free speech
Daniel Harper, a student at Cameron University in Oklahoma, is the latest victim of the censorship pandemic infecting America’s colleges and universities.
Earlier this semester, Harper handed out flyers expressing his religious objections to the World Mission Society, a religious group active on Cameron’s campus. Harper, an evangelical Christian, believes the group is a dangerous cult.
After receiving a complaint, administrators prohibited Harper from distributing any more flyers citing the university’s Expressive Activity Policy and Equal Opportunity Policy, which bar students from engaging in “offensive” and “discriminatory” speech, require students to join a student organization, and then get prior permission to distribute flyers.
Harper is fighting back with help from the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Christian legal group. On May 15, he sued university officials for violating his constitutionally protected right to free speech and religious liberty.
If the allegations prove true, Cameron officials have displayed a stunning disregard for the First Amendment—which, as administrators of a public university, they are required to uphold.
“I like the amendments to the Constitution,” the Equal Opportunity Officer told Harper, according to the ADF complaint. “They are foundations to democracy. But that’s all they are, foundations. You can’t live on them. You’ll freeze to death in winter and burn up in summer.”
The administrator went on to explain that the university’s policies are above those “amendments to the Constitution” and that Harper needed to follow university policy regardless of his First Amendment rights.
Even stranger (and more chilling), university administrators charged Harper with religious discrimination for disseminating views critical of a religious group. On the Cameron campus, apparently, “religious freedom” means freedom from being offended.
Under the First Amendment, however, religious freedom means the right to be free from government control or repression, not freedom from criticism in the marketplace of ideas.
As constitutional scholar Eugene Volokh points out in his commentary on this case, “freedom of religion and of speech itself protects the right to denounce religions. Religious beliefs and religious groups, no less than political beliefs and groups other beliefs and groups, are eminently proper subjects of criticism. A public university is forbidden by the First Amendment from trying to squelch such criticism, whether it’s of conservative Christianity, Islam, Catholicism, Mormonism, Judaism or the World Mission Society.”
Sadly, Daniel Harper’s case is not an isolated incident. Censorship of constitutionally protected speech is commonplace today on college and university campuses across the nation. Of the 427 colleges and universities analyzed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) in a 2014 report, almost 59 percent maintain policies that “seriously and substantially restrict” protected speech and another 36 percent overregulate speech on campus. (www.thefire.org)
In an apparent zeal to ensure that no one is ever offended for any reason, many universities create “free speech” zones to isolate student speech, ban “unwanted” jokes, off-hand comments and teasing, and, in myriad other ways, attempt to silence protected speech.
Students at Cameron University and many other campuses must jump through hoops and get an official stamp of approval before being allowed to distribute materials in public spaces. At two universities in the past year, administrators even barred students from distributing the U.S. Constitution because they didn’t get the proper authorization and stick to the designated distribution area.
The good news is that Daniel Harper will likely win his case. But when students like Daniel must go to court to secure their right to free speech, it’s bad news for the future of the First Amendment.
Colleges and universities, after all, are supposed to be testing grounds for exercising First Amendment rights—places of open inquiry about the full range of religious and political convictions, including those that spark robust debate or offend prevailing sensibilities.
Shutting down the free exchange of views on campus is the beginning of the end for a vibrant marketplace of ideas in America’s public square.
Maybe we can’t “live on” the First Amendment, as the Cameron administrator put it. But he needs to remember—as do we all—that we can’t live free without it.
Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20001. Web: religiousfreedomcenter.org Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.