By Casey Mattox
Six weeks ago ADF allied attorneys launched an ambitious project seeking to eliminate unconstitutional speech codes in the Third Circuit (PA, NJ, and DE). Despite a clear and controlling Third Circuit decision in DeJohn v. Temple University, dozens of public universities under that Court’s jurisdiction retained their unconstitutional policies, threatening expulsion for students whose religious or other speech is deemed “offensive.” Whether they remain in place because of obstinance or indifference, these policies chill student speech. There is no need for an actual censor of student speech when a university can inform you that you can be expelled for “religiously offensive” speech and where university administrators get to decide whether you have “offended.” The threat that another student will claim offense at the Gospel – potentially resulting in expulsion of the speaker -- will cause many Christian students to self-censor just to get through school. The First Amendment doesn't permit this and the courts have consisently gotten this one right.
ADF allied attorneys Len Brown, Randy Wenger and Demetrios Stratis (with assistance from many more allies) sent letters to 5 schools – Rutgers, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Westmoreland Community College (PA), Cheyney University (PA), and Delaware State. The letters, on behalf of students at each of the schools, specified how each policy is out of step with Third Circuit law and offered to assist the universities in revising their policies. These ranged from the “bias incident” policy at Rutgers that authorized punishment of students whose speech was perceived (however unfairly) as “malign[ing]” another’s religion or sexual orientation (with review over “bias incidents” and punishment for them left to Rutgers’ “Center for Social Justice Education and LGBTQ Communities”) and Cheyney’s ban on words or images that offend on the basis of religion (i.e. the Gospel to some or an image of Mohammed) to Delaware State’s ban on “offensive utterances.”
I’m pleased to let you know that while none have been finalized yet, all five schools have acknowledged the need to revise their policies to protect students’ free speech rights. ADF allies have again offered to assist the schools in conforming their policies to the First Amendment’s requirements and will be following up to ensure that the schools follow through. This is good news for anyone that favors robust protection for speech on campus.
In the next few weeks I hope to be able to share more specifics on the revisions to these universities’ policies as they are finalized. But in the meantime, if you are a student at a public university in Pennsylvania, Delaware, or New Jersey we want to hear from you. These five schools are only the beginning of this effort.
Several other schools still retain unconstitutional speech codes and we would like to work with you to address them. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to become part of this effort to free campus speech by eliminating unconstitutional speech codes.