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Freedom From Religious Expression at NC’s Cape Fear Community College

A few weeks ago, FIRE President Greg Lukianoff published a short book titled Freedom From Speech, which outlined the lamentable censorship on our nation’s campuses. Cape Fear Community College (CFCC) has given us yet another lesson in this phenomenon: The school’s faculty members are calling for freedom from religious expression contained in a student-authored production.

Last month, drama students at the Wilmington, North Carolina community college voted unanimously to perform a “production featuring illusions and sleights of hand that also includes religious themes.” The drama club’s faculty advisor, however, vetoed the show. According to an Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) press release, advisor Jack Landry “claimed that the production would violate the First Amendment if it included the religious themes” and that if the students wanted to perform the play, they should “dumb down” religious messages so as to avoid “offending” anyone.

ADF has sent a letter to CFCC on behalf of the student, Justin Graves, who first presented the idea of the play to the drama club. ADF asserts that CFCC violated Graves’s First Amendment right to free speech in rejecting the religious viewpoint of the production. In an interview with Campus Reform, ADF lawyer Travis Barham explained that what the First Amendment actually requires is that religious and secular speech be treated equally. The college administration, Barham says, “can’t seek out the religious stuff and try to push it off campus.” Those efforts—not the contents of the play—constitute the real First Amendment threat.

It’s not so much irony as it is ignorance at play here: The faculty advisor at CFCC misunderstands the requirements of the First Amendment. While the Establishment Clause bars public universities themselves from advancing religion, it does not and has never restricted the activities of independent student organizations at those universities. Their freedom of expression, religious or not, is protected. There are no constitutional protections against being offended, but there are protections against censorship based on content. What is happening at Cape Fear Community College is indicative of the troubling trend on campuses toward avoiding offense at all costs—even if that cost is our most cherished freedom.

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