If you haven’t noticed, college campus culture isn’t like it used to be. Few are the days where students or faculty could engage together in a peaceful and respectful dialogue of differing ideas and viewpoints to learn about someone else’s point-of-view. Now, instead of encouraging conversation, campuses default to squashing speech that might cause others to be uncomfortable. Below we’ve answered five of the most common questions about student rights on public college university campuses. Keep this handy, and if you believe your right to live out your faith on campus is violated, contact us to see how we can help.
As a student, what are my rights on a public college or university campus?
- Freedom of Speech - The U.S. Constitution protects your right to express personal, religious, and political beliefs in writing, speech, and visual or performing arts while at a public college or university. In class, a professor may ask you to take positions you disagree with, so long as he or she doesn’t require you to agree with those positions outside the classroom.
- Freedom of Association - Christian and conservative student groups have the same right to associate on public college and university campuses as any other group.
Free Exercise of Religious Beliefs - Public colleges and universities cannot compel you to publicly advocate views and adopt values that are contrary to your beliefs.
Equal Access - All recognized student groups have the same right to access resources a public college or university has made available. This includes funding, meeting rooms, mail systems, or other campus resources.
Equal Opportunity - As a student, you have the right to be free from censorship, reprisal, or punishment for your beliefs. Students with religious or conservative beliefs should have the same chance at academic success, employment, and promotion.
Can a public college or university tell me not to speak on certain topics because the topic could be offensive?
- No. Many public colleges and universities use unconstitutional speech codes on their campuses to censor students. By using terms like “offensive,” “demeaning,” and “uncomfortable,” these speech codes give administrators broad discretion to silence students, which is unconstitutional.
Can a professor make me take a stance on a particular issue?
- Generally, no. While professors can ask you to play “devil’s advocate” in the classroom, they cannot force you to take a particular public position on an issue. For example, public university administrators and faculty directed a student to participate in lobbying the Missouri General Assembly in support of homosexual adoption as part of her course requirements for a degree in social work. When she refused because of her beliefs, the university threatened to withhold her degree. Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit on her behalf, which was quickly settled by the institution. No governmental entity, including an institution of higher learning, has the right to tell people what to think, say, or feel.
Can a public college or university isolate a student who wants to share a viewpoint on religion, politics, or abortion to a remote part of campus?
- Generally, no. It may be hard to believe, but in a country built on deep respect for free speech, many public colleges and universities use policies creating “speech zones” to restrict free speech, frequently to small, isolated areas. This is not only unfair, but it is usually unlawful.
Is it constitutional for a public college or university to dictate whether members or leaders of a religious group are chosen based on their beliefs?
- Generally, no. Many public colleges and universities require student groups to adopt a nondiscrimination membership policy as a condition of receiving official school recognition. Such policies attempt to force a religious or political organization to accept as members and leaders persons who don’t necessarily agree with the organization’s beliefs. For example, a Christian organization would be forced to accept as president an atheist student, while the College Republicans would be compelled to accept a left-leaning Democrat as its leader.
Conditioning access to public college and university programs is an improper restraint on this freedom. For this reason, in most circumstances public colleges and universities cannot expel religious groups from campus merely because they want their members or leaders to uphold faith-based standards of belief and conduct. Overly broad “nondiscrimination” policies violate student groups’ rights of free speech and association.
One Student Can Stand Up to an Entire Public College or University
If you think your public college or university may be violating one of your constitutionally-protected rights, with the help of Alliance Defending Freedom, you can make a difference. Your courage could pave the way for thousands of other students, faculty, or staff members across the country to live out their faith on campus. Contact us to see if we can help you and download the Student Rights Handbook for more information about your rights on campus.