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Students, Is Your School Asking You to Give away Your First Amendment Rights?

By Natalie Wyman posted on:
October 17, 2017

“I agree to the terms and conditions.”

Ah yes, the infamous iTunes pop-up, begging for your consent to their incredibly long and dreary legal jargon. Those iTunes terms and conditions could be total gibberish, and I would never know it. I just click “accept” and move on with my day. (The lawyers around me are glaring at me in disapproval right now).

Thankfully, no harm has come to me from failing to read those terms and conditions (that I know of…), but there are certainly severe consequences for doing this when it comes to other areas of your life. Some of those are obvious, such as buying a new car or accepting a job offer, but others are deceptively more significant than we might realize.

Just ask Robert Dunn.

Dunn, who founded the Iowa State University chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, received an email from ISU requiring all students to complete a “Title IX training” online, addressing the school’s “nondiscrimination and harassment policies.” But at the end of the training, Dunn was asked to sign a statement confirming that he would comply with the university’s discrimination and harassment policies – its speech codes. Dunn did what most of us fail to do: He read the fine print. And what he found was unconstitutional.

Iowa State’s speech codes specified that they “may cover those activities which, although not severe, persistent, or pervasive enough to meet the legal definition of harassment, are unacceptable….” The policy specifically called out “First Amendment protected speech activities” as possibly constituting harassment “depending on the circumstances,” including whether other students believe the speech is not “legitimate,” not “necessary,” or lacks a “constructive purpose.”

In other words, Iowa State would allow other students’ opinions – rather than the First Amendment – to dictate the whether a fellow student’s speech would be protected.

So, Robert Dunn reached out to Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), and we filed a lawsuit on his behalf. In April, the school agreed to revise its unconstitutional policies.

Robert Dunn’s case is not unique. Whether it’s students being arrested for handing out copies of the Constitution on campus or a pro-life group being refused access to funding from mandatory student activity fees, conservative students around the country are feeling the walls close in around their right to freedom of speech.

In today’s increasingly aggressive and polarizing political climate, it is more important than ever that universities teach students to engage civilly with other viewpoints. College students are the future of our society and government: They must be able to respectfully disagree and debate rather than outright silence different opinions.

But some students may be unwittingly promising to give up their rights.

Constitutional violations come in many different forms, under the guise of many different policies – “speech policies,” “discrimination policies,” and “harassment policies.” And increasingly universities are requiring students to complete online “training” programs that end, like ISU’s, with a requirement that they pledge compliance with the school’s policies. It is imperative that students read the fine print and make absolutely certain their school isn’t asking them to sign away their First Amendment rights.

ADF provides free legal assistance to college students who are willing to take a stand for their rights and will continue to do so until all college students are assured of their freedom of speech on campus.

Find out what rights university students have on campus and how ADF is defending those rights.
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Natalie Wyman

Natalie Wyman

Legal Assistant I

Natalie worked as a lobbyist at the Family Foundation of Virginia and a grassroots associate at Heritage Action for America before joining the Alliance Defending Freedom team.