Politics & Policy

Student Group Sues University Over Free Speech Restrictions

(Image via College Students for Life of America)
Pro-life group says Boise State singled out its message for censorship.

A student pro-life group is suing Boise State University for what the students say was a violation of their right to free speech, according to the Idaho Statesman.

The group, Abolitionists4Life, claims that BSU’s administration prohibited them from distributing literature outside of the school’s “free speech zones” and required the group to display warning signs near their events.

In April and May, the student group hosted two exhibits to promote its pro-life ideas. Abolitionists4Life booked events in one of the school’s eleven designated “free-speech” zones, which make up less than 1 percent of the school’s 175-acre campus, according to the Idaho Press Tribune.

But according to the lawsuit, the administration felt compelled to implement additional restrictions because of the “controversial” nature of one of the exhibits, which displayed photos of aborted fetuses. Campus officials  required that the group put up warning signs in order to alert students walking by who would potentially be offended by the pictures.

For their second exhibit, entitled “What has Roe done for us?”, A4L was one step ahead of the administration. The group used a warning flap to cover a photograph of an autopsy of a woman who died during an abortion.

But again, the administration felt that this was not sufficient, and instructed the group to put up additional signs to warn students walking by.  

“Universities are a place where controversial issues are brought up every day and we were simply allowing our campus to see the controversy of abortion for what it really is,” Abolitionists4Life president Lisa Atkins told the Idaho Statesman. “Just because an issue is controversial doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be able to talk about it and allow others to understand the issue for themselves.”

Abolitionists4Life also argues that the university’s policies are not being enforced uniformly on all student groups. Members claim they were told the school’s free speech rules prohibited distribution of literature outside the free-speech zone. But Planned Parenthood representatives handed out free condoms while fraternities and sororities distributed literature outside their “free speech zones” without any retribution, according to A4L.

“The pro-abortion student groups on campus had put on events promoting their point of view, and they were never asked to put up warning signs.” Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, wrote in an email to Campus Reform. “In light of that, the university requiring us to put a sign on our display seemed to be a pretty obvious censorship attempt at our group.”

The Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian nonprofit legal organization, joined forces with A4L to file the suit in the U.S. District Court of the District of Idaho. The lawsuit argues that the First Amendment fully protects the freedom of religious and political speech, including the distribution of literature and the display of signs, and that it also prohibits the government from restricting speech because it might offend listeners.

The university has yet to file a formal response in court, but BSU spokesman provided a statement to KVTB.

“Boise State University encourages and respects the constitutionally protected free speech of students, faculty, staff and visitors to campus,” the spokesman said. “University policies reflect numerous court opinions on ‘time, place and manner’ guidelines and other First Amendment considerations.”

According to KVTB, the group is asking for policy changes but also wants BSU to pay for attorney fees and an additional $100 for its violation of the students’ rights.

“University policies that suppress free speech are completely at odds with what a university is: a marketplace of ideas,” Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Legal Counsel David Hacker said when the group announced its lawsuit against the university. “Free speech should not be limited to a tiny area on campus, nor should students be told their speech needs a warning sign simply because university officials think their views are ‘controversial.’”

—Molly Wharton is an intern at National Review. 

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