FIRE on the Supreme Court’s Landmark Decision

By June 29, 2012

We at FIRE are very excited about a Supreme Court decision that we know will have a profound impact on our nation for years to come.  

OK, now that I have your attention (and web traffic), I feel I should confess that I am talking about the seminal campus free speech case of Healy v. James, which turns 40 this week.

The facts of Healy dealt with the attempt by Central Connecticut State College (now University) to deny recognition to students who were organizing a campus chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). While a college committee approved the organization for recognition, the college’s president, Dr. Don James, refused to approve the group for recognition on the grounds that, among other things, the group would be a "disruptive influence" on campus. 

In rejecting this rationale, Justice Lewis Powell, writing for the court, famously stated: 

[T]he precedents of this Court leave no room for the view that, because of the acknowledged need for order, First Amendment protections should apply with less force on college campuses than in the community at large. Quite to the contrary, "[t]he vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools." The college classroom with its surrounding environs is peculiarly the "’marketplace of ideas,’" and we break no new constitutional ground in reaffirming this Nation’s dedication to safeguarding academic freedom. (Internal citations omitted.) 

In making clear that public college students enjoy First Amendment protections, Powell cited the Court’s 1969 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (another vitally important case for student rights) to hold that "undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance [] is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression" on the public college campus. And thank goodness for that, as this undifferentiated fear of disruption has driven more than its share of campus censorship throughout the years (most recently at Sinclair Community College in Ohio). 

The 9–0 decision in the students’ favor (there were concurrences but no dissents from the judgment) has stood as a bulwark for student rights for 40 years, and its helpfulness to FIRE’s cause cannot be overstated–a search for it on our website yields 283 results! Here’s hoping that Healy stands for 40 more years, and then some.