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Best of Newsdesk: Is speech suppression at religious colleges 'the invisible free speech crisis?'

Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. and Senior Vice President for Spiritual Development David Nasser speak at Liberty University's 2015 convocation (Credit: Liberty University / Youtube)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of FIRE’s annual “Best of Newsdesk” retrospective, where we bring you another look at the year’s best content. It originally ran April 12.

In this post, FIRE staffers Laura Beltz and Sarah McLaughlin offer their thoughts on a series of tweets and an article from The New Republic staff writer Sarah Jones, who wrote about campus free speech, religious institutions, and her experience at Cedarville University. We distilled Jones’s arguments into five separate points and responded to each.

If you see interesting commentary you’d like FIRE to weigh in on, let us know.

#1. Campus free speech advocates and media critics largely ignore censorship at religious institutions

Sarah: Recently there’s been a lot of public discussion over the way media critics and advocates talk about campus censorship (is it a crisis?) and whether they pay too much attention to some cases and too little attention to others. The claim that coverage of campus controversies is often inconsistent is a valid one, and it’s a frustration my colleagues Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon and Azhar Majeed shared last month when responding to commentary offered by Vice News Tonight correspondent and New York Times Magazine writer-at-large Jay Caspian Kang.

Last week, Sarah Jones tweeted commentary and followed up with an article at The New Republic about what she thinks the campus free speech conversation lacks: discussion of speech restrictions at religious colleges and universities or, as Jones calls it, “the invisible free speech crisis.” When it comes to religious institutions, Jones is absolutely right that some of them maintain strict control over students’ lives and what they can — or, perhaps more importantly, can’t — say and believe.

Like Jones, I think media coverage of campus free speech issues would benefit from greater attention to religious institutions. As FIRE always argues, it’s important that students know what they’re getting into before choosing to attend a college, and inclusion of religious institutions in the conversation about campus free speech would likely raise awareness of speech suppression that occurs on those campuses.

Laura: You might wonder how private religious colleges fit into the discussion of free speech on college campuses at all, as they aren’t legally bound by the First Amendment like public colleges are. But colleges that promise students free speech rights in official written policies give their students a reasonable expectation that students’ speech will indeed be protected according to First Amendment standards. When a college breaks those promises, it violates its moral obligation to the student who relied upon them — and arguably its contractual obligation, too.

On the other hand, some private colleges don’t promise students free speech rights, and even go so far as to clearly state that the school’s mission or values override student speech rights. At FIRE, we classify colleges that outright state in their policies that they place other values above free expression as “warning” institutions in our Spotlight database, meaning that students should be warned beforehand that they won’t possess the same free speech rights as their peers at public institutions or other private institutions that explicitly promise free speech rights. As our database explains, “FIRE believes that free speech is not only a moral imperative, but also an essential element of a college education. However, private universities are just that—private associations—and as such, they possess their own right to free association, which allows them to prioritize other values above the right to free speech if they wish to do so.” Of the over 450 institutions we currently include in our Spotlight database, 10 colleges and universities earn a warning rating, including Brigham Young University and Yeshiva University.

#2. Religious institutions like Liberty University and Wheaton College regularly suppress student and faculty speech

Sarah: They do. One of the examples Jones brings up in her post is Wheaton College in Illinois, which suspended political science professor Larycia Hawkins in 2015 for publicly stating that Christians and Muslims believe in the same god. As FIRE said at the time of Hawkins’ suspension, Wheaton College is a good example of what a warning school looks like.

Jones also discusses Liberty University, and points out that its president, Jerry Falwell Jr., recently threatened to have Christian author and activist Shane Claiborne, with whom Falwell disagrees on certain theological and political matters, arrested if he comes onto campus.

In 2016, we wrote about Falwell’s censorship of an anti-Trump article written in the student newspaper at Liberty University. (In fact, Falwell Jr. is reportedly censoring the student newspaper again, this time for attempting to write about Claiborne.) As we explained, Liberty’s written policy clearly elevates religious values above freedom of speech — which flies in the face of a statement Falwell made weeks before in which he claimed that “Liberty University promotes the free expression of ideas unlike many major universities where political correctness prevents conservative students from speaking out.” We wrote then that Falwell “cannot cloak himself in the mantle of freedom of speech while demanding censorship power over student press.” His words are empty until Liberty takes steps to actually promise students free speech rights in written policy materials. If Falwell wants to present his campus as open to dissent, Liberty’s handbook should reflect that. In fact, that’s why we launched the Leader Statement Database — so that students can keep track of what their college presidents and administrators say, and hold them accountable for the promises they make.

Laura: It’s frustrating when college presidents “talk the talk” but don’t “walk the walk” when it comes to free speech. For students to actually depend on free speech promises, they need to appear in official written materials, like a code of conduct or a student handbook. If schools like Liberty are truly committed to defending students’ expression, they should adopt a clear free speech policy statement.

Since its introduction in 2015, FIRE has considered the free speech policy statement produced by the Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago, known as the “Chicago Statement,” to be the gold standard. It provides a helpful review of First Amendment principles, and sets the tone for the rest of the policies regulating expression at the University of Chicago, which earns FIRE’s highest, “green light” rating. Sixteen other private colleges (as well as 20 public colleges) have followed in the University of Chicago’s footsteps in adopting policies based on the statement, making their commitment to expression one that is clear and dependable.

#3. Georgetown University is a religious institution “with relative tolerance for dissent”

Laura: Jones is right to contrast schools like Liberty and Wheaton with a school like Georgetown, which does clearly promise its students free speech rights in its written policies, including a free speech policy statement that is based on the Chicago Statement.

However, Georgetown doesn’t always live up to that commitment in practice. For example, Georgetown has repeatedly denied pro-choice group H*yas for Choice official recognition because the group’s stated purpose “conflicts with Catholic moral teaching.” (FIRE has written to urge Georgetown to reconsider the group’s recognition on numerous occasions.) Groups that are not officially recognized by the university are denied access to certain benefits, like funding from student activities fees and the ability to reserve campus spaces. The denial of these important benefits on the basis of viewpoint stands in stark contrast to the university’s free speech policy statement, which declares: “It is Georgetown University’s policy to provide all members of the University community, including faculty, students, and staff, the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.”

Just as schools like Liberty that only pay lip service to free speech should actually commit to protecting free speech rights, schools like Georgetown that have made that commitment must follow through on their promises.

#4. Cedarville and universities like it are accredited — why don’t they have to protect free speech?

Sarah: We could not agree more with the statement that “taxpayers are subsidizing campuses that violate students’ free speech rights every single day.” FIRE would never have been founded if this weren’t the case — and this problem is not confined to religious institutions. Jones is right that religious institutions, like their secular counterparts, are accredited, and accreditors often require that institutions pledge to protect free expression and academic freedom. However, neither accreditation nor receipt of public funds is sufficient to bind schools to the First Amendment. (As we explain in FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus, “accepting governmental funds usually makes the university subject only to the conditions—sometimes broad, sometimes narrow—explicitly attached to those specific programs to which the public funds are directed.”) And when accrediting agencies do require such commitments, they are too often unenforced. Take, for example, Cedarville, accredited by the Higher Learning Commision, which lists among its criteria for accreditation a “commit[ment] to freedom of expression and the pursuit of truth in teaching and learning.” Yet Cedarville bars student advocacy that, in its administrators’ subjective view, takes “unscriptural positions” — a policy squarely aimed at limiting freedom of expression. For what it’s worth, the Higher Learning Commission offers students, faculty, and third parties an opportunity to file complaints against institutions they believe are not living up to the Commission’s standards.

#5. The indifferent response to students who lack rights at religious colleges often lacks empathy and fails to offer solutions

Sarah: On Twitter, Jones shared a link to an event at Cedarville featuring speaker Rosaria Butterfield, who writes and speaks about her “journey from ‘leftist professor in a committed lesbian relationship’ to a ‘now confessional Christian.’” It’s fair to assume that some students will be uncomfortable with Butterfield’s message. As a general rule, FIRE’s suggestion to students who oppose a speaker’s viewpoint is to use their own voice to offer an alternative one. However, that is likely not possible at Cedarville, which “restrict[s] demonstrations, solicitations, or distributions to those that support views that are consistent with Scripture and with the mission of Cedarville University” and prohibits “[d]emonstrations, solicitations, or distributions that, in the opinion of the University, involve advocacy of unscriptural positions.”

So what should students do if they have something to say but fear punishment for doing so? Or what if they didn’t understand the speech restrictions they were placing themselves under when they decided to attend a university like Cedarville? Or what if they effectively didn't make that choice themselves, and were under heavy pressure from their parents to attend a restrictive religious school? These questions relate back to an argument Jones eloquently makes in her post:

The LGBT students I knew kept silent under the pressing fear of expulsion and subsequent rejection by their families and communities, which could even result in homelessness. Queer students and allies talked off-campus, in coffee shops and in apartments; we looked over our shoulders, we whispered. Stifling, totalizing fear: That’s what it feels like to lack free speech.

We all knew what we had signed up for when we paid our deposits, or so conservatives reminded us at the time. This is both technically true and irrelevant in practice. In reality, the children of insular subcultures don’t have a lot of choice when it comes to academics. For many of my classmates, Cedarville or a school like it was the only guaranteed route to a higher education.

As Jones notes, 17-year-olds may not always have a real choice in what college to attend, or may not be able to do much about it if they realize, months or years later, that the environment into which they’ve entered is not right for them. So what can they do?

One suggestion is that students who are unable to transfer to an institution with less-restrictive policies — which may not be feasible for a number of reasons — should speak to administrators about the importance of adopting policies that protect students’ ability to dissent, and why those policies would benefit the campus, and ask their peers to do the same. Students should make the case to administrators that a college best serves its community when it allows its members to respond to speech, not just absorb it. As Laura mentioned earlier, advocating for the adoption of the Chicago Statement would be a good place for students to start.

It’s true that administrators may not listen. But it’s also true that administrators are unlikely to consider changing these policies unless they are asked to do so.

Another suggestion: Alumni who have attended private religious universities and found them oppressive could reach out to students currently experiencing what they once did and offer them forums where they do not have to fear censorship or expulsion for speaking out. And don’t forget that public pressure from alumni and donors is an important tool in enacting change — writing about speech suppression as a means to draw attention to it, as Jones did, is a place to start.

(For a fuller explanation of FIRE’s position on freedom of association and religious institutions, see FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff’s 2012 discussion of Liberty University.)

Institutional change, if it happens, often takes a lot of time and work. The solutions raised here are not easy or comprehensive, and that may understandably prove frustrating to some readers, but complex issues rarely have easy solutions.

Laura: While tackling policy reform at religious institutions may indeed feel daunting (as it can at any type of college), FIRE has the resources to help students get started.

First, students should research the policies at their college or university to see what they’re up against. Students can head to our Spotlight database to see the extent to which their school’s policies restrict free speech, as well as whether a private college has committed to protecting free speech or if it earns our warning rating. Students whose college or university is not included in the Spotlight database can contact us for a review of how the policies would be rated if the school were included in the database.

After becoming familiar with the policies, joining our FIRE Student Network and checking out our FSN resources is a great way to get the ball rolling on advocating for policy changes. These include resources on learning more about student rights, tips for activism, guides for utilizing media for your activism, and advice on holding events on campus. For students who are looking for more help with policy reform advocacy, our Policy Reform team provides direct help with students’ efforts, as well as the efforts of faculty members, concerned alumni, and administrators themselves.

As Sarah indicated, policy change takes time and work, but FIRE is ready to help students improve their free speech rights on campus, whether their college is a religious private institution, a secular private institution, or a public institution.

We’re pleased that Sarah Jones has brought more attention to the different challenges posed to campus free speech across the country.

If you’re interested in hearing FIRE’s take on other commentary about free speech issues, let us know.

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