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Freedom of Conscience Violated at Bellevue Community College

Bellevue Community College (BCC) has once again come under public criticism over a violation of its students’ First Amendment rights. On October 26, five students attempted to attend a political rally for Democratic candidate Maria Cantwell, the incumbent Washington Senator. The students wore T-shirts supporting the campaign of Cantwell’s opponent, Republican Mike McGavick. Organizers of the event refused entry to the students, some of whom had been required by a professor to attend.

In reaction to this violation of freedom of conscience the ACLU of Washington wrote a letter to BCC on October 27 challenging the constitutionality of its actions. Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s president, and William Maurer, Executive Director of the Washington chapter of the Institute for Justice (IJ), wrote a joint letter on November 3. FIRE and IJ argued that BCC had violated the “students’ right to be free from compelled political association.” Colleges should not require students to attend partisan rallies where they are forbidden from expressing dissent.

This is important because attendance at a political rally can be a sign of the strength of a campaign. Requiring students to attend a rally, therefore, essentially makes them supporters of that particular campaign for purposes of public perception. What particularly infringed upon freedom of conscience in this case was the fact that the Cantwell campaign refused to allow the students to wear dissenting T-shirts or to express their dissent in any way.

In their letter to BCC, FIRE and IJ wrote:

The United States Supreme Court has made clear that the First Amendment prohibits the government from coercively associating individuals or groups with unwanted messages. See, e.g., Boy Scouts of Am. v. Dale, 530 U.S. 640, 653 (2000) (government cannot “force [an] organization to send a message” with which it disagrees). Likewise, the government may not compel individuals to convey messages with which they disagree. See, e.g., West Virginia Bd. of Ed. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 633-34 (1943) (government may not “require[] affirmation of a belief and an attitude of mind,” nor “force an American citizen publicly to profess any statement of belief”). Unfortunately, by compelling the students to attend a political rally for a party to which they do not belong and to remove T-shirts that indicated their actual political beliefs, BCC violated these constitutional principles.

FIRE and IJ suggested a few provisions for revamping BCC’s policies to avoid similar incidents in the future. First, BCC instructors should “not mandate attendance at particular political rallies.” While under some circumstances it would be constitutional to require students to attend political rallies, it is a policy that is too easily abused. Second, if BCC has a policy allowing instructors to mandate attendance at political rallies, it should have a complementary policy that allows students to peacefully disassociate themselves from the event they disagree with either through peaceful dissent or through an option to attend an alternate event. Third, if BCC is going to allow instructors to force students to attend a particular rally, it should find out whether compulsory attendees are even wanted at the event (they probably aren’t). If they are, then the school should get assurances from the rally organizers that they will accommodate dissenters.

FIRE and IJ also called on the university to protect the dissenting students from any repercussions for bringing this incident to light. We look forward to BCC’s response to this situation.

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