Pro-life student group Students for Life filed a lawsuit May 5 against Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Oregon, challenging the college’s speech policies that restrict outdoor speech to two small areas of the campus.
The school’s speech policy, adopted in 2010, restricts outdoor speech to two “free speech zones,” which make up less than 1.5% of the 100-acre campus. The college also requires students to secure permission at least two weeks in advance before speaking in those areas.
“The only permission slip students need in order to speak on public college campuses is the First Amendment,” said Alliance Defending Freedom Legal Counsel Michael Ross, one of the attorneys representing Students for Life. “Students don’t give up their constitutionally protected freedoms when they step on to campus or hold a specific viewpoint. Our clients have the right to peacefully engage and persuade their peers.”
According to the lawsuit, the group hosted a debate on campus about the morality of physician-assisted suicide on Feb. 26. Students for Life leaders said that while they applied for, and received, approval from the college to host the event indoors on campus, they also wanted to promote the event outdoors between classes by handing out flyers and talking to their fellow students about services provided by their local pregnancy resource centers. But, fearful of violating the college’s policies restricting speech, the group chose to forgo further promotional activities.
“Today’s college students are our future legislators, judges and voters. That’s why it’s so important that public universities model the First Amendment values they’re supposed to be teaching students,” said ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom. “Pro-life students—like their peers—have the freedom to share messages of hope and healing without first asking college administrators for permission to speak.”
Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, said that free speech restrictions are unfortunately not uncommon on college campuses across the country.
“We are seeing incredible opposition to the pro-life speech of our student leaders and volunteers as they speak for the defenseless and educate their fellow students on abortion,” she said. “But the law and the Constitution are clear on the matter: Public schools cannot silence pro-life groups or force them to self-censor. If Chemeketa Community College wants to respect every member of its community, it will clarify that Students for Life can participate in the open exchange of ideas and ensure that the entire college community becomes a ‘free speech zone’ for pro-life students and their peers.”