Awakening Sleeping Administrators to the Truth of the First Amendment

College StudentsIt sometimes seems as though America’s universities will never run out of ways to silence free speech on their campuses. You could almost look at it as “job security” for your team of Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys, because, by God’s grace, He continues to inspire us with legal insights for successfully confronting these aggressive encroachments on religious freedom.

Recently, for instance, we  filed a lawsuit challenging the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s practice of requiring outside speakers to obtain internal “sponsorship” before they can engage in free speech on campus. Alliance Defending Freedom brought the lawsuit on behalf of a Christian preacher who was refused permission to share his faith on campus, unless he secured the endorsement and support of a student organization or university official.

When the preacher, John McGlone, sought clarification on these requirements, he was presented with two different directives from two different administrators, each offering his own interpretation of the university’s speech policies. Such confusion compounds the curtailment of free speech, and so we asked a court to intercede.

Last summer, pending final resolution of the case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit temporarily prohibited the university from enforcing their confusing written policies. And on February 21, the district court judge signed a consent order settling the case in favor of McGlone.

“University administrators cannot pick and choose which viewpoints they will allow on campus,” says Alliance Defending Freedom Legal Counsel Jon Scruggs, who represented McGlone. “This settlement resolves that problem at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville by removing the vague policies that the 6th Circuit found to be unconstitutional. Confusing policies that don’t provide appropriate direction to both speakers and university officials don’t benefit anyone.”

Our attorneys are working for similarly good results at the University of Wisconsin and Iowa State University, where administrators recently – and needlessly – removed Bibles from all university guest rooms after receiving complaints from an atheist group, Freedom from Religion Foundation. The group asserts that allowing groups like Gideons International, a Christian organization, to place Bibles in the rooms violates the First Amendment. Our attorneys’ letters debunk those claims, encouraging the universities to resist the unfounded legal threats and replace the Bibles.

“Public universities, as marketplaces of ideas, should understand that the First Amendment does not require them to purge something from campus just because it happens to be religious,” says Litigation Staff Counsel Travis Barham. “Rather, the Constitution requires them to accommodate religion. The Bibles’ presence in guest rooms is simply a discrete way of accommodating the needs of traveling guests. They are in no way a government promotion of religion.”

The struggle continues to awaken universities across America to their duty to preserve freedom of speech and religious liberty. In some cases, administrators’ languor stems from a genuine lack of understanding as to what the First Amendment protects; in other cases, it is simply courage that is lacking. The forces aligned against religious freedom are formidable, and intimidating.

Which is why I encourage you to pray – for the students, staff, and faculty whose courage often brings these cases to the forefront … for our attorneys, who represent them … for your tax-funded administrators, who must come to appreciate and defend the First Amendment on their campuses … and for those who are persecuting freedom, that their hearts might touched and transformed with the truth.


Author: Alan Sears