Religious Freedom in Public Colleges and Universities

Despite our nation’s longstanding commitment to the free exchange of ideas at our public universities and colleges, religious freedom and free speech are threatened now more than ever on college campuses. Through the use of “speech codes,” “speech zones,” and “non-discrimination” policies, school officials have stifled speech, especially unpopular speech that may “offend” other students.

For example, earlier in 2017, the President of Students for Life at Colorado State University applied for a “diversity grant” to bring in a noted pro-life speaker. The diversity grant committee denied the grant because the speaker was not “entirely unbiased” and some people “won’t necessarily feel affirmed in attending the event.”

In 2015, a student at a community college in Maricopa County wanted to advertise the creation of a campus group called Young Americans for Liberty. After she began passing out fliers for her group and copies of the U.S. Constitution, campus officials told her to stop because she did not obtain a reservation in advance. The college restricted free speech to one designated zone with prior permission between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, unless the zone was already reserved.

For more examples, see Alliance Defending Freedom’s “University Stories.”

Students’ Rights Based on the U.S. Constitution

Students do not lose their constitutional rights simply by stepping onto the public college or university campus. As the Supreme Court has noted, “state colleges and universities are not enclaves immune from the sweep of the First Amendment.” Healy v. James, 408 U.S. 169, 180 (1972). Therefore, college students possess a broad range of constitutional rights on campus, even more so than K-12 public school students.

Generally, college students have free speech rights and free exercise of religion rights. They also have freedom of association, meaning that religious students have the right to associate on campus like any other group. Also, all recognized student groups, including religious groups, have the right to equal access to the resources a college makes available to student groups. This includes access to facilities and funding for student group events.

The Supreme Court has ruled that a public university cannot single out religious organizations for disadvantageous treatment. Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263 (1981).

Students’ Rights Based on Arizona Law 

Through the years, Center for Arizona Policy (CAP) has worked with the Arizona Legislature to enact laws that strengthen the religious freedom rights of students in public colleges and universities. In 2011, CAP raised concerns about students’ religious freedom at Arizona’s public universities and community colleges, and a comprehensive bill to protect students’ rights was passed and signed into law.

Under the law (ARS 15-1862), a public university or community college:

  • Cannot discriminate against a student on the basis of the student’s religious viewpoint, expression or belief.
  • Cannot adopt any policy that penalizes or punishes a student based on the student’s religious viewpoint, expression or beliefs.
  • Cannot penalize or reward a student on the basis of religious content or a religious viewpoint if an assignment or classroom discussion requests a student’s viewpoint in coursework, artwork or other written or oral assignments. In such an assignment, a student’s academic work that expresses a religious viewpoint shall be evaluated based on ordinary academic standards such as grammar, style, analysis and adherence to the instructions for the assignment.
  • Cannot withhold any certificate or degree on the basis of a student’s religious viewpoint or religious expression.
  • Cannot discipline or discriminate against a student in a counseling, social work or psychology program because the student refuses to counsel a client about goals that conflict with the student’s sincerely held religious belief if the student consults with the supervising instructor or professor to determine the proper course of action to avoid harm to the client.

The law also protects the rights of student organizations to be treated equally (ARS 15-1863):

  • A university or community college that grants recognition to any student organization or group may not discriminate against or deny recognition, equal access or a fair opportunity to any student organization or group on the basis of the religious, political, philosophical or other content of the organization’s or group’s speech including worship.
  • A religious or political student organization may determine that ordering the organization’s internal affairs, selecting the organization’s leaders and members, defining the organization’s doctrines and resolving the organization’s disputes are in furtherance of the organization’s religious or political mission and that only persons committed to that mission should conduct such activities.
  • A university or community college may not deny recognition or any privilege or benefit to a student organization or group that exercises its right to direct the organization in furtherance of its religious or political mission.

In 2016, in response to the Maricopa County Community College District’s free speech restrictions, CAP worked with the Arizona Legislature to enhance existing free speech protections for students. Under this more robust law (ARS 15-1864):

  • Universities and colleges cannot restrict a student’s right to speak, including verbal speech, holding a sign or distributing fliers or other materials, in any open, outdoor area on the campus, and any facility, building or part of a building that the university or community college has opened to students or student organizations for expression.
  • Universities and colleges may not impose restrictions on the time, place and manner of student speech that occurs in a public forum and is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution unless the restrictions:
    • Are reasonable.
    • Are justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech.
    • Are narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest.
    • Leave open ample alternative channels for communication of the information.

A student or the Attorney General may bring an action against the public university or community college for violations of this law.

Protecting free speech and religious freedom are of the utmost importance on our college campuses. Future generations of students are at risk of losing some of their most important rights, and the future of our nation is imperiled when students are taught that government officials can censor their beliefs and expression.

If you or someone you know is a public college student whose rights may have been violated, please let us know.

ICYMI – Latest News & Articles of Interest

  • How University Students Can Become #FreedomWoke as They Head Back to Campus” by ADF Attorney Tyson Langhofer.
  • Conference: “Legalized Marijuana: The Unintended Consequences” will take place on September 27 in Phoenix. For more information, click here.
  • On September 26, CAP is hosting Ryan T. Anderson of The Heritage Foundation, a national leader on the issues of religious freedom, marriage, and non-discrimination laws. For more information, click here.

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