In addition to government laws and regulations that impact religious freedom and freedom of speech on campus, colleges themselves sometimes enact “policies” of their own that inhibit student freedoms.
Just consider these recent examples:
- Students belonging to the Young Americans for Liberty, a campus group at Bunker Hill Community College in Massachusetts, were ordered to stop distributing copies of the U.S. Constitution on campus without “permission” from the college. The U.S. Constitution!
- Andrew Cash, a graduate student at Missouri State University, was expelled from the university’s counseling program after making known his perspective that although he would be fine with counseling homosexual clients, he would refer homosexual couples to another counselor who shared that couple’s values. Cash sued the university and won a monetary settlement that will allow him to pursue his counseling dream at another school.
- Ryan Rotella, a junior at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, objected to a class assignment where he was directed to write “Jesus” in bold letters on a sheet of paper, place it on the floor and stomp on it. When Rotella refused to participate, the professor suspended him from the class and told him not to come back. With help from First Amendment attorneys, Rotella’s name was cleared and he received an apology from the university.
A little research by the college-bound teen into policies of specific colleges of interest will go a long way toward avoiding unpleasant surprises once he or she has been accepted ― and before parents and student have entered into a financial commitment to a particular school. Although this truth applies to many areas of campus life, it is especially important where constitutional freedoms are concerned.
In looking at specific colleges, parents and their teens should ask: “Is the college ― whether it be a secular, private or private religious college ― friendly and accommodating toward Christians and the Gospel message?” The answer to that question may greatly impact the Christian student’s college experience, in either a positive or negative way.
Here are some current problems that have surfaced at some colleges and universities in recent years, which you should be aware of:
Christian Clubs On Public Campuses
Campus clubs are an important part of any student’s college experience. If a student club is “officially recognized” by the university or college, it means the club enjoys certain “perks” that non-recognized clubs do not, including: funding for its activities out of student fees; free access to campus meeting facilities; and the use of official school email lists, etc. Such “recognition” allows clubs to operate and thrive on campus.
However, some colleges have, regrettably, attached conditions to such “official recognition” that impact religious clubs in particular. For example the University of California, Hastings College of the Law imposed what it called “non-discrimination” rules that required all clubs on campus to allow anyone to join and to run for leadership. That may sound fair initially, but most student clubs, including Christian clubs, are created and run to appeal to only certain types of students, whether they’re religious, political, or even sex-segregated organizations like a men’s glee club. In the case of the Christian Legal Society club at this particular law school, the effect of this rule would have been to let non-Christians, atheists, and campus activists hostile to the Gospel message join and even lead the club, destroying its faith-based distinctiveness in the process. In fact, it was an LGBT campus organization that complained to the law school about this particular Christian club, whose requirements for voting members and leaders (but not attendees) included abstaining from sexual immorality, including homosexual behavior.
Regrettably, the U.S. Supreme Court, in 2010, upheld the state school policy and ruled that it did not violate the First Amendment religious freedom of the Christian club because it could still exist, albeit without the benefits that accompany an officially recognized club.
Christian Clubs On Private Campuses
This problem with campus clubs is not limited to state-run institutions. Private colleges, such as Vanderbilt University and Tufts University have made news in recent years by their attempts to restrict Christian clubs.
Some states and their legislatures are pushing back against this disappointing trend, at least with regard to their own state-run colleges. For example, Kansas and Oklahoma have in recent years passed laws forbidding state-run institutions of higher learning from establishing policies that discriminate against religious clubs, including forcing such clubs to accept non-believers as leaders or members. Such laws are designed to prevent what happened at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law from happening in those states.
Freedom Of Speech Restrictions ― Speech “Codes,” “Zones” And “Permits”
Free speech on campus is not as free as it used to be. Today’s college administrators, driven by fear of controversy (which can upset faculty, donors, students and prospective students) have taken steps to limit free speech in a number of ways. In fact, some ways can serve to hinder the Gospel message on campus. The typical tactics that have been tried include: speech codes, speech zones, and permits.
“Speech codes” restrict speech that upset the politically correct atmosphere prevailing on many campuses. Using vague and hard-to-define standards, they can often prohibit speech that “harasses” or “annoys” or can be construed as an “act of intolerance.” A related problem is that they are typically based entirely on the subjective feelings of the hearer rather than on an objective standard. As Christians, we know the Gospel message can ― and will ― offend people, so speech codes can present obvious problems for Christians on campus. On a state-run college campus, these codes usually violate the First Amendment; however, they have been and can be successfully challenged. The organizations listed in the next article have a good track record in the defense of free speech on campus. But remember, the First Amendment does not apply to private colleges, so speech codes at those types of schools are not vulnerable to a legal argument.
A “Speech zone” is another unfair tactic some colleges use to “contain” speech to a small area where few people go. In the minds of college administrators, fewer hearers will translate to fewer controversies for the school administration to deal with. In one extreme case, a college limited its “speech zone” to a single 6-foot folding table. If the college combines its speech-zone policy together with a “permit” requirement (and sometimes a security “fee,” if the topic is deemed “controversial”), it can create an atmosphere that discourages free speech rather than encourages the exchange of ideas. Since Christian clubs often desire to engage with students about the message of the Gospel, such types of speech restrictions can inhibit the opportunity for Christians to “sow the Word.” (see Matthew 13:1-23, ESV)
Professors As Bullies
Everyone has heard a story or two about atheist professors mocking Christians and their beliefs in class. Every situation will be different, and there are no easy answers or dealing with these bullies; however, being prepared ahead of time with a game plan will help if and when the time comes. Checking with Christian upperclassmen who know the school’s “system” can also be an invaluable resource when encountering this kind of classroom obstacle. In extreme cases a student’s academic record can be jeopardized. If so, there are Christian legal groups ready and willing to help. See the “Resources” section in the next article.
Some graduate degree programs require students to adhere to ethics codes, which can be used to violate the religious conscience of Christian students. Such “ethics codes,” for example, have been used by a few colleges to attempt to force Christian counseling students to counsel gay couples in violation of their religious beliefs about same-sex relationships. Julea Ward, a graduate student in the counseling program at Eastern Michigan University, was expelled for asking (and receiving permission) to refer a gay client to another counselor. She was ultimately exonerated by a federal court of appeals, and reinstated, but her experience is by no means unique. Similar tactics have been employed by other schools.
Do your due diligence to uncover any current religious freedom issues at colleges under consideration. Whether a public or private college is under consideration, it would behoove any parent or prospective undergraduate to perform a simple Internet news search using the name of the college you’re interested in, plus phrases like “religious freedom” and “Christian club” or “freedom of speech” to see if there are any past or current issues on campus to be concerned about.
Next in this series: “Recommendations and Suggested Resources: Where To Go To Find Help Or More Information.”