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Higher Education Free Speech Issues

Institutions of higher education have generally been held to have less control over student free speech rights than elementary and high school teachers and administrators. In part, this position reflects the fact that college students are adults. However, there have still been areas of controversy in post-secondary student free speech rights, generally having to do with funding issues. The latest area of controversy has been with so-called "hate codes," which ban certain types of speech considered offensive from college campuses.

Recognizing Student Groups

One way in which colleges and universities have traditionally imposed free speech restrictions on students is by determining which student groups they will recognize. Such recognition traditionally allows these groups to share in mandatory fees and receive space for offices and to hold meetings on college campuses. Generally speaking, colleges are held to have made available a "limited public forum" to such groups, and as such are limited in the restrictions they can impose.

In the 1972 case of Healy v. James, the Supreme Court established that a college or university could not refuse to recognize an organization simply because university officials had an unproven fear of school disruption. Healy applied the material and substantial disruption test of Tinker to the college environment and found that unless the school had a compelling reason to believe that a group, in this case, Students for a Democratic Society, would seriously interfere with learning on the campus environment, it could not deny recognition.

In 1981, the Court went further in the case of Widmar v. Vincent. Involving the decision by the University of Missouri to refuse to recognize and grant access to university property to a religious group, the Court ruled that the University's decision to do so, while allowing access to several secular based groups, violated the First Amendment. The Court's decision in Widmar effectively meant that any decision by a college to deny recognition to a particular group was going to be analyzed with strict scrutiny and most likely struck down.

While none of these cases has reached the Supreme Court, one of the most litigated issues of the past thirty years involving recognition of student groups has involved recognition of homosexual groups. Generally speaking, nearly all attempts by colleges to refuse to recognize gay groups have been held to violate these groups First Amendment rights.

Mandatory Student Fees

Mandatory student fees constitute another area in which colleges and universities have faced free speech issues. These fees are generally collected by colleges as part of student tuition, and then distributed to a wide variety of groups.

Colleges usually do not impose restrictions in terms of ideology on which groups receive these fees, but they have in the past denied funding to groups promoting a religious viewpoint. However, in 1995 in Rosenberger v. Rector of the University of Virginia, the Supreme Court struck down these restrictions at the University of Virginia and ruled the University could not silence the expression of selected viewpoints by denying the groups student fee money. The Rosenberger decision stated colleges have to be rigidly neutral in distributing student fee money and cannot discriminate on the basis of content or viewpoint without violating the First Amendment.

A related issue concerning mandatory student fees has been whether it violates a student's First Amendment rights to be forced to pay fees that fund groups with which the student disagrees. In 2000, in the case of Board of Regents v. Southworth, the Supreme Court determined that it does not, as long as the money is distributed in a viewpoint neutral fashion, and does not favor one viewpoint over another.

Hate Speech Codes

The most recent free-speech issue to hit college campuses involves so-called hate speech codes. These are codes passed by colleges that restrict speech considered offensive to other groups on campus, particularly speech that is believed to be racist or sexist.

While a case involving these hate speech codes has not yet reached the Supreme Court, lower courts have been undecided about allowing them to stand. For example, in Doe v. University of Michigan, in 1993, the United States Court for the Eastern District of Michigan struck down a policy passed by the University of Michigan regulating hate speech. The court found the policy overbroad and unconstitutionally vague. The university could not regulate speech "because it disagreed with the ideas or the messages sought to be conveyed," said the court, "nor because the speech was found to be offensive, even gravely so, by large numbers of people." Added the court: "These principles acquire a special significance in the university setting, where the free and unfettered interplay of competing views is essential to the institution's educational mission." This has been the fate of speech codes that have been litigated, and as of this writing, not one has passed muster at the federal court level.

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