Is Free Speech Safe at Illinois State University?

Free speech has a long cherished history in the United States and is enshrined in the very first part of the Bill of Rights. However, in recent years, free speech has faced increasing hostility in a place where open-mindedness and diversity of thought supposedly flourish: the college campus. 

On October 21, 2015, Mauck & Baker partnered with the Alliance Defending Freedom and Turning Point USA to give a presentation, “Free Speech Under Attack on Campus” at Illinois State University in Bloomington. This event was planned when it came to light that Illinois State University has one of the most restrictive free speech policies among college campuses in the nation. The purpose of our presentation was to address the growing threat of censorship and inform the students about their rights under the First Amendment.

The room was full of students, administrators, and pastors who were all very much engaged. We were very encouraged that many students embraced the idea that a public university should be open to all viewpoints. However, our message was not met without criticism. Members of the campus LGBT student group expressed concerns about whether free speech posed a risk to student safety and should be restricted if deemed hurtful. One student commented that speech is as powerful as “guns and knives.” In response, we discussed the danger for everyone when prohibiting unpopular and even offensive speech, particularly when the state is given the power to silence unpopular speech. While neither side convinced the other, the conversation remained very constructive and respectful. 

The trip is part of a larger effort nationwide to bring awareness to the fact that a citizen’s constitutional rights are not revoked when entering a public institution. There have been numerous occasions involving students being wrongly targeted by college campuses because of the content of their speech. Such actions are often taken pursuant to a campus speech policy which often contains vague wording and broad principles that can be used to silence disfavored groups and speech.  Many colleges also have free speech zones which place restrictions on where free speech can happen. Some go so far as to paint small boxes in parks or on sidewalks to mark off the place where individuals are limited to express their views.

Fortunately, such free speech restrictions routinely lose in court. In fact, Mauck & Baker recently won a lawsuit against Waubonsee Community College when the institution refused to allow two men’s request to hand out their flyers from behind a table—as they had done in years past. The college refused access simply because it disagreed with the information the men were distributing which described the risks and dangers of homosexual sex. The court rebuked the college for engaging in “purposeful unconstitutional suppression of speech.” As a firm, we hope to continue to advance freedom of speech so we can all express our deeply held viewpoints without fear of retaliation. 

Also see:
Public Colleges or Free Speech Silencers?
In Light of Reed, Free Speech Protections Broaden
Supreme Court Unanimously Protects Speech

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