Free Speech in Universities


Microphone in focus at a rally with blurred crowd backgroundIt seems speaking your mind on a college campus is historically much harder than it should be.

If students clash with administration over a worldview, be it political, religious, etc., apparently this can become so divisive and heated that a Supreme Court ruling is required. If you should ever need a bail bondsman due to a free speech issue, it’s imperative to find someone who will help you out of a tricky situation.  The following will help give you a background on free speech issues on university campuses in the United States.

Throughout the last half century there have been several Supreme Court cases regarding free speech and higher education establishments. The rigid neutrality of properly upholding the First Amendment is what causes this dissonance, which in turn causes these court cases, and universities’ administrations have long struggled with accepting the Amendment’s unwavering nature.

In 1973, in the case of Healy vs. James, the Supreme Court decided that just because a university thought a student group might be disruptive to student peace on campus didn’t mean that the University had the right to deny that group official student group status. Student group status would enable the group to pay fees to the university in exchange for campus space for offices, meetings, demonstrations, etc. The group in question in Healy vs. James was Students for a Democratic society, a New Left movement that was critical of things like racial discrimination, economic inequality, the unlimited power of giant corporations and the divisive concept of political parties. They were not communist, but they were anti-anti-communist, which was, for the older generation running the University of Michigan, very anti-American and radical indeed. One can imagine that the administration used its ability to decide that there would be a disruption of the other students’ ability to learn caused by this group, and therefore justify not giving the group official student group status. Thankfully the Supreme Court took away that ability and said they would need very direct evidence to support that presupposition of disruption.

Another free-speech controversy is the attempt of universities to impose “hate speech codes” or a restriction on speech by student groups that is believed to be racist or sexist. In Doe vs. the University of Michigan, in 1993, the United States Court for the Eastern District of Michigan took away the University of Michigan’s ability to have such codes. The court said universities would no longer restrict student’s views from public display “because it disagreed with the ideas or the messages sought to be conveyed, nor because the speech was found to be offensive, even gravely so, by large numbers of people.” The court also stated that this free-speech controversy regarding hate speech is especially pertinent in the university setting where the free flow of all possible ideas and worldviews are meant to clash together and learn from one another.

Part of students’ tuition is distributed by university administrations to provide funding for student groups. When university administrations deny student groups these funds for representing some sort of religious view then the First Amendment has been violated. In Rosenberger vs. Rector of the University of Virginia, 1995, the Supreme Court ruled that the university could not deny funding for any student group on the basis of viewpoints held by the members of that group.

University administration have a free speech conundrum inherent in their system. They are treating their students like adults, preparing them for the “real world” and supposedly allowing an absolutely free, unfettered dialogue of ideas happen between intelligent, curious minds, young and old, student and professor. Yet the university is still a finite space, a place run by small group of people who have moral codes like anyone else. These people are in charge of allocating physical space, funds, marketing resources and other beneficial resources to groups that might not line up with their personal moral worldview. We should be thankful that these administrators have a court system above them to keep them in check and keep speech free.