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Education | University campuses remain home to vague and unconstitutional speech codes, but some Christians and others are taking stands for freedom

Issue: "Between Hell and Hope," Feb. 12, 2011

When Christina Beattie, a junior at Palm Beach State College, decided to start a Young Americans for Freedom chapter, she was not expecting to defend that freedom in court. But after the college banned her from setting up a recruitment table and then from distributing any literature at all, that's exactly where she finds herself.

"Of course you have red tape that you have to go through," Beattie says-but for her that red tape includes a lawsuit, a court order that finally gave her the freedom to set up a table, and a school security guard who keeps an eye on her while she recruits. She said it seems that her school is running the kind of "big government bureaucracy" she wanted her chapter to fight.

Students and free-speech advocates wrangle with school administrators over academic freedom every semester as students defend their rights to form student clubs, pass out literature, and even send religious emails that might offend someone. But other students aren't even aware their rights are in jeopardy.

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The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education surveyed 390 colleges and universities and found that two-thirds have policies that "seriously infringe" on students' free speech rights. Over 3.9 million students are enrolled at schools that FIRE counts as the worst restricters of free speech. These free-speech violations range from unconstitutionally broad definitions of "harassment" or "intimidation" to policies that encourage viewpoint discrimination against student clubs.

Although a religious college has the right to base its speech codes on a set of values, public universities must follow constitutional definitions when banning harassment, intimidation, and incitement. The Supreme Court narrowly defines harassment as "so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim's access to an educational opportunity or benefit"-much more narrowly than the University of Florida, for example, which bans "sexual innuendo." The University of Arkansas prohibits all language that "does not respect the equality and dignity of others" and Colorado College prohibits any act that causes "ridicule" or "embarrassment." Grambling State University also prohibits students from sending emails that include "offensive comments about . . . religious beliefs."

Beattie decided to start a YAF club after hearing students' uninformed conversations about politics: "I feel like there's a need for people my age to be aware of what's going on in government. . . . There's just a need for education because they're not getting it from the professors and they're not getting it from the news." To recruit the five members she needed to form a club, she set up a table with literature.

That lasted about 15 minutes, she said, until officials told her it wasn't allowed. So she asked for permission and said she got verbal permission to participate in a club recruitment event the next fall. But when she set up her table at Club Rush-complete with literature from the Heritage Foundation-she lasted just a few minutes again until officials came and ordered her to take the table down. A video of the encounter shows the visibly angry school activities coordinator Olivia Morris-Ford telling Beattie, "I need you to move your stuff. Period. . . . I asked you to move. Move it now."

Since the school wouldn't let her set up a table, Beattie decided to pass out literature instead. The Student Handbook allowed this as long as she showed the literature to the Student Activities Office and got permission 24 hours in advance. But when Beattie asked each of PBSC's four campuses for permission, PBSC staff said it did not allow anyone to distribute literature.

Beattie is now suing school officials for violating her rights to free speech, free association, and equal protection under both the United States and Florida constitutions. A school spokesman told me the school will not comment on the case, but Beattie's lawyer-Casey Mattox, senior legal counsel at Alliance Defense Fund-said of the school's policy: "It's essentially a policy that prohibits consenting words on paper between consenting adults." Mattox said the stated policy is already dubious since staff can decide, with no clear standards, what kind of literature they find acceptable. But the unconstitutionality appears clear when in practice, the campus doesn't allow students to distribute literature at all: "We get to see a lot of bad university policies. But as policies go, they seem to have some of the worst speech policies in the country."

Daniel Diaz, the executive director of Young Americans for Freedom, is advising Beattie. He has helped start clubs on seven campuses and said, "On almost every single university campus that I have been on, they essentially violate our First Amendment rights." The Supreme Court has ruled that the Constitution protects free speech in a public place as long as you're not impeding traffic, but every time Diaz arrives at a campus with literature, a school official orders him to stop distributing it within minutes.

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