Recently at Hampton University, seven students were punished for distributing anti-Bush flyers without the approval of the university administration. As discussed in FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus, private universities generally have broad discretion when establishing policies that restrict speech on campus. But this power is not always unchecked.
State constitutions usually take a back seat when we discuss civil liberties, but some state courts have interpreted their constitutions to guarantee more freedom than the U.S. Constitution. Hampton administrators should read Article I, Section 12, of the Constitution of Virginia, which states in part:
That the freedoms of speech and of the press are among the great bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained except by despotic governments; that any citizen may freely speak, write, and publish his sentiments on all subjects….
Hampton officials would be wise to heed this extraordinarily strong language. Although the Virginia courts have not, at present, applied this right to students at private universities, Hampton may still find someday that it must legally provide its students with some free speech rights. Both the Pennsylvania and New Jersey courts have applied freedom of speech guarantees in their state constitutions to private colleges and universities, and California has guaranteed freedom of speech on private campuses through the famous Leonard Law.