State Schools Cannot Force Students to Apologize

By May 27, 2005

Throughout my time at FIRE I have seen many cases in which students found guilty in the campus judiciary are required to write apologies as part of their punishment. I have even seen this in cases where students have maintained they had done nothing wrong in the alleged “incident” (see the Cal Poly case for one dramatic example). I have seen this sort of punishment handed out so freely, in fact, that I seriously doubt administrators understand the serious moral and legal problems forced apologies pose. First of all, if you are at a public college and you require a student to apologize for something against their will you are seriously risking violating the Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court has long since recognized that, while free societies must not tell their citizens what opinions they may not have, it is even less compatible with freedom to tell citizens what they must say. Administrators who doubt that should check out West Virginia State Bd. of Ed. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943) and Wooley v. Maynard, 430 U.S. 705 (1976). If the state cannot require students to recite the pledge of allegiance in a time of war or, even, require a New Hampshire resident to have a “Live Free or Die” license plate motto, it certainly can’t require a student to confess remorse against his or her will. In other words, at public schools: force an apology, risk a lawsuit (and deservedly so). But besides the clear constitutional restrictions on compelled speech, administrators should ask themselves: what is a compelled apology really worth? An “I’m sorry” forced through gritted teeth is hardly taken as genuine by any wronged party. The only satisfaction one could take from such an apology would be the unworthy satisfaction of having bent another human being to your will. If college administrators are serious about sanctions serving an educational purpose, they must not force students to apologize against their will. If administrators do compel students to speak against their own consciences, the only education those students are getting is in what it feels like to be in an authoritarian regime. Respecting your students’ freedom of conscience—even when you disagree with them—is the best lesson you can give students about what it means to be part of a decent and free society.