ADF has just completed its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in a case involving the prolife student club, Rock for Life, at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The case demonstrates the problems with campus “speech codes.” Many universities have these vaguely worded policies that prohibit students from engaging in things like ”incivility” or “disrespect” or “intolerance.” Frequently, these speech codes allow the listeners, and not the intent of the speaker, to determine whether the speaker has violated the speech code. So, such statements as “abortion is wrong, ” or “marriage is a man and a woman,” or “Jesus Christ is Lord,” can violate a campus speech code if the listeners feel harassed, threatened, offended, or disrespected by those words, no matter what the speaker intended with his words.
At UMBC near Baltimore, the prolife students in Rock for Life experienced the harsh application of “speech codes.” Rock for Life received permission to display graphic photos of aborted children in an area of campus well traveled by students. They figured it would trigger debate about abortion among the students if they saw actual aborted babies. At the last minute before Rock for Life was going to begin its display, university police and university officials moved the prolife display to a deserted area of campus infrequently visited by students – when watching the security video of this area, you would expect to see the occasional tumbleweed blowing through this vacant expanse of campus.
How did the university justify its abrupt order to move the display? Four overlapping policies regulating student speech. Several of these speech codes prohibited “emotional harassment.” And a university official – its attorney – said that he feared students might feel “emotionally harassed” by the display. Later, he explained that he wanted to protect the students’ “emotional well-being” and prevent them from becoming “emotionally distraught.” Hence, UMBC moved the display at the last minute.
In court, ADF challenged this ideological exile of prolife speech, as well as the broadly written “speech codes” invoked to justify their actions. Several federal appeals courts have struck down such vague policies as violating the First Amendment because they give unbridled discretion to government officials to silence unpopular viewpoints and allow them to hide their true reasons for doing so under the vague language of the speech code. The Rock for Life case has become mired down in some technical issues on whether the prolife students have standing to challenge all of the policies. We hope the U.S. Supreme Court will grant review and rule that the legal challenge to the speech code can go forward.
But the speech codes at many universities threaten student speech, especially the speech of students advocating unpopular views – nowadays, that frequently means students advocating for life, marriage, or the Christian Gospel. Speech codes also can “chill” student speech by pressuring them to self-censor their views so that they won’t get in trouble. Policies that “chill” the free exchange of ideas on campus are also unconstitutional. If you are experiencing any such problems, please contact us at the Alliance Defense Fund. A university campus should truly be a free marketplace of ideas.
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