Public college and university campuses continue to provide grist for First Amendment lawsuits involving free speech and the freedom of religion. Two important cases currently being handled by attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) serve as reminders that Christian clubs on many campuses are discriminated against because of their beliefs, and free speech can’t be relegated to tiny free speech zones.
In Texas, ADF represents Ratio Christi, a national Christian organization with student chapters on many college campuses. The organization believes in using apologetics and rational discourse to introduce Christ to nonbelievers. Unsurprisingly, it also requires its campus student leaders to be Christians and adhere to a statement of faith and conduct.
However, Ratio Christi has run into opposition to that requirement at a couple of campuses, first in Colorado and of late, in Texas. The group’s experience mirrors other Christian clubs on public campuses. Scriptural mandates regarding marriage and sexuality are flagged on secular campuses as objectionable requirements for leadership because they allegedly violate campus nondiscrimination policies that apply to a number of protected classes, including homosexuality and gender identity.
But in these types of cases, including the Texas case at the University of Houston – Clear Lake (UHCL), the colleges violate their own policy by allowing any number of campus clubs to require their leadership to adhere to the mission statements and values of the organization, whether they are Greek sororities and fraternities, men’s and women’s glee clubs, veterans’ groups, or ethnic clubs. By singling out Christian clubs to enforce a campus nondiscrimination policy, they engage in “viewpoint discrimination,” which is forbidden by the First Amendment.
It didn’t take long for UHCL to admit its mistake. ADF filed suit on behalf of Ratio Christi in October 2021, announced a tentative settlement of its claims in November, and has now reported that UHCL has changed its policies to allow campus clubs to require their leaders to adhere to the mission and statement of beliefs of the organization. UHCL has also agreed to pay $26,200 in damages and attorneys’ fees to Ratio Christi. The parties have agreed to dismiss the case, according to an ADF press release posted on its website.
“We are pleased to see the university resolve this matter to respect the First Amendment rights of Ratio Christi and accommodate the organization’s commonsense leadership requirements. We hope other universities will follow the lead of the University of Houston at Clear Lake,” said ADF Senior Counsel Gregg Walters. “Public universities across the country are learning that there are consequences when they unlawfully discriminate against students or student groups based on their faith.”
The Texas case is Ratio Christi v. Khator.
Another ADF case – this time from Alabama – is on its way to that state’s Supreme Court after a lower court dismissed the claims of the Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH). YAL is a libertarian, student activism organization with chapters on high school and college campuses. Its mission, according to the complaint it filed in an Alabama state court, is “to identify, educate, train, and mobilize students to promote the principles of the natural rights of life, liberty, and property.”
As an expressive association, YAL uses a variety of means to get its message out to other students, including flyers, signs, peaceful demonstrations, hosting information tables, inviting speakers to campus, talking with fellow students, and just about anything else you might think of.
There was a problem at UAH, however, in that it has a speech code policy that requires three days’ notice and permission to speak, restricts certain speech to zones, and leaves too much discretion up to the school administration as to who gets to speak and what messages are allowed on campus.
On top of that, Alabama has a free speech law known as the Alabama Campus Free Speech Act which lays out what public institutions of higher education can do with regard to restrictions on free speech. YAL thinks that UAH’s free speech policy offers significantly less protection for speech than required by the state law and the state’s constitution.
So YAL filed its lawsuit in July 2021. However, an Alabama state court judge dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that UAH’s speech policy was in compliance with the Alabama law as well as the Alabama constitution’s free speech provision.
Recently, ADF filed a notice of appeal with the Alabama Supreme Court, alleging that the lower court erred in its ruling.
ADF Legal Counsel Michael Ross explained what’s at stake in this case in a press release.
“University campuses should be encouraging free speech, not stifling it with burdensome and illegal rules like speech zones and requiring students to get a permit from college administrators before sharing their views,” Ross said. “Shutting down free speech on campus is unlawful, and we will continue fighting for the First Amendment rights of our clients and all students.”
The Alabama case is Young Americans for Liberty v. Trustees of the University of Alabama.
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