Boulder Students for Life Score a Win Against Campus Censorship
When people think about the war on campus free speech they often think about the concept of the Heckler’s Veto. There are many examples of hecklers attempting to negate free speech by simply shouting and drowning out the speaker. At places like UMASS-Amherst, angry leftists regularly shout down conservative speakers without any objection from the administration.
As bad as those incidents are, they pale by comparison to the more insidious form of censorship known as prior restraint, efforts to restrict speech before it occurs. Prior restraints are particularly egregious when they are combined with viewpoint discrimination, as often occurs. At the University of Colorado Boulder (CU-Boulder), attorneys for the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) recently thwarted a blatant attempt at prior restraint. The case provides a textbook example of how conservative students should respond to efforts to silence unpopular views.
In January, Students for Life (SFL) decided to bring in former Planned Parenthood director Abby Johnson for a campus speech. Like other groups at CU-Boulder, members of SFL pay mandatory student activity fees each semester. The fees are redistributed to clubs wishing to sponsor speeches and other First Amendment protected activity. In order to get the funds, groups can apply for funding through the campus Cultural Events Board.
The people who dole out the funds on the Board are bound by the Supreme Court case of Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth (2000). That case mandates viewpoint neutrality in the distribution of those funds. The Board responded to SFL’s funding request with a series of seven questions, which egregiously violated that neutrality requirement.
For example, the Board asked if SFL would “be willing to find another speaker for this event who would be able to address the multi-faceted issue without attacking the organization of Planned Parenthood.” It also questioned whether Ms. Johnson, would really present “an educational perspective” on the abortion issue.
Unsurprisingly, after fully cooperating and answering the questions, SFL had its funding request denied. The Board’s ostensible purpose was “a lack of educational dialogue created around the topic of pro-life at the event.” The Board went on to explain that “The speaker as presented will talk about Planned Parenthood abortion practices but will not provide an unbiased view on pro-life issues.”
The most shocking aspect of the Board’s “anti-bias” reasoning is that it quashed the speech of someone who was once pro-choice and then converted to the pro-life position. In the Board’s eyes, who would have been better suited to address the topic? Someone who had always been pro-choice? I think we all know the answer.
After the students contacted ADF, some interesting patterns emerged. For example:
- CU-Boulder funded a lecture by Angela Davis — recipient of the Lenin Peace Prize and former leader of the Communist Party US. But it did not require that the event also champion free market economics with someone like Thomas Sowell sharing the stage with Davis.
- CU-Boulder funded a presentation from transgender activist Janet Mock without also requiring the event to present a different view of human sexuality with a speaker such as Dr. Michael Brown.
- CU-Boulder funded an event with Cornel West without asking the organizers to invite someone like Walter Williams to share a different view on problems in the black community.
- CU-Boulder funded a speech from Jose Antonio Vargas, a pro-illegal immigration activist without demanding that the event also include a pro-border speaker such as Michelle Malkin.
In other words, the requirement that events must present both sides was simply concocted by the Board to stop this one speaker because of her unpopular viewpoint. So ADF wrote a letter asking the CU-Boulder president and its high-ranking administrators to intervene.
Those administrators responded, and the Board soon informed SFL that it “has decided to fund the Abby Johnson event.” In fact, SFL got over 98% of the funding it requested — funding which ultimately made the event a success.
The purpose of the SFL lecture was simply to give the students at CU-Boulder a new perspective on an issue that is seldom treated in an unbiased fashion on secular campuses. But students in SFL ended up doing more than that. Through their courage and their willingness to stand up to campus censors they ended up teaching the administration a valuable lesson about prior restraint of free speech.
When it comes to tolerating viewpoint discrimination on college campuses there is really only one legitimate side of the issue. Viewpoint discrimination is simply wrong. That’s not a biased perspective. It’s a genuinely anti-biased point of view.
More importantly, it’s what the constitution requires.
Mike S. Adams is a professor of criminology at the University of North Carolina – Wilmington, and the author of several books, including Letters to a Young Progressive: How to Avoid Wasting Your Life Protesting Things You Don’t Understand.