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Villanova censors student’s off-campus advocacy of contraceptive use

Entrance sign to Villanova University

Amy Lutz /

Elisa Carroll, a Villanova University student, wanted to create an organization to provide students with access to contraceptives. Carroll had found that as a religious university, Villanova would not distribute contraceptives itself, a decision she respected. 

“Given the reality of life in college, students need convenient access to contraceptives to reduce risks, especially for women,” Carroll said. “I respect Villanova’s beliefs and policies, and I understand the university cannot address these problems.”

So, Carroll explained to the university that she planned to create an unaffiliated organization that would offer dental dams and condoms off-campus and advocate for their use.

Villanova University student Elissa Carroll
Villanova University student Elisa Carroll.

Even this was unacceptable for Villanova. Villanova Director of Student Involvement JJ Brown told Carroll the university would prevent her from distributing the contraceptives on a public sidewalk near campus. Brown told her that given the sidewalk’s proximity to campus and because Carroll is a Villanova student, the university could prevent her from promoting any contraceptive advocacy organizations there, including by handing out contraceptives.

FIRE wrote Villanova last week explaining that because it promises students that they have the right to free expression, it must allow Carroll to engage in her advocacy.

While Villanova is a private institution not bound by the First Amendment to protect free expression, it independently promises students “freedom of inquiry” and guarantees that the university “encourages the open exchange of ideas on a variety of subjects, including those that are controversial.” From these commitments, students like Carroll will reasonably assume they will not face punishment for speech protected by the First Amendment — the foremost legal standard concerning free expression.

Given these promises, Villanova does not have to advocate for contraceptive use, but it can’t prevent Carroll from doing so. 

As we wrote Villanova:

While Villanova may not believe advocating contraceptive use aligns with its religious identity, it cannot prohibit students from doing so — particularly when they speak on their own behalf in public, off-campus spaces, outside the university’s jurisdiction.

Universities that promise students expressive freedoms have very little room to censor students’ off-campus speech. Carroll and other Villanova students should take note of how the university responds here. It will signify whether Villanova actually intends to keep its commitment to protect student expression or if its promises are nothing more than words on paper.

FIRE hopes Villanova comes to the right conclusion that students’ off-campus advocacy is not in the university’s jurisdiction and accordingly cannot be censored. We’ve asked Villanova for a response by March 7.

FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).

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