The Newseum: First Amendment on College Campuses

Here is another post I wrote Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU).

Once again I attended an event related to AU’s work on March 21. This time I was at the Newseum in the heart of DC for a symposium on the First Amendment on College Campuses that was hosted by the Newseum’s Religious Freedom Center. While the symposium focused on the First Amendment on university campuses it more specifically focused on the freedom of speech, the right to practice religion, and the current debate around sexuality, and gender. The panel featured several well known personalities in the study of First Amendment law as well as Hanna Rosin, the NPR talk-show host of “Invisibilia” and contributing editor of The Atlantic.

As previously mentioned the panel focused on the First Amendment on college campuses with thoughts coming from opposing sides. The main question discussed was the consequences of university campuses curbing freedom of speech amongst faculty and students and how it affects religious freedom on campuses. Eugene Volokh, the keynote presenter, argued that when universities curb freedom of speech on campus, the universities are hampering the ability of students to learn both inside and outside of the classroom by encountering and engaging with opposing views. Yes, opposing views can be seen as offensive to students but they will never learn why the opposing side feels the way they do by not engaging them in dialogue. After the opening remarks were made and the panel was opened up to discussion, Kim Colby, director of the Christian Legal Society’s Center for Law and Religious Freedom, asked the panel about when religious freedom and freedom of speech go too far on university campuses. She cited one case in particular, Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, where a religious student organization was penalized by a public law school for requiring organization leaders to comply with the Christian beliefs of the group. Heather Weaver, a staff attorney at the ACLU and former litigation counsel for AU, argued that the student organizations that Kim cited were preventing students from joining Christian groups due to their sexuality. Greg Lukianoff, attorney and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), argued that religious based student organizations have a right to set their own guidelines for who is allowed to be a student officer based off of the faith professed by the student group without the interference of university administration. He further argued that university administrations and high-schools don’t have the right to bar religious groups from practicing their faith on campus as was the case in Bender v. Williamsport Area School District.

As for me, I thought the symposium brought to light the complexity of regulating religious freedom and freedom of speech not just at universities but in the public realm as well. Protecting religious freedom and freedom of speech is a balancing act that has to be carefully played without stepping on toes of one group or another.

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