Does encountering a viewpoint you disagree with warrant a warning sign?
At Miami University of Ohio, Hamilton (MUOH) it does.
This past fall, the Students for Life at MUOH requested permission to put up a “Cemetery of the Innocents” display – a display of small crosses placed together in the ground to commemorate the number of lives lost to abortion. Students for Life at MUOH had put up this display three times from 2015 to 2016.
But this year, university officials told them they were not permitted to put up their display without also posting warning signs around campus, basically discouraging people from viewing the exhibit. They feared the display might cause “emotional trauma” for other students. A university official also characterized the display as “harmful for some of [the university’s] community members.”
Apparently, these university officials think that college students cannot encounter a viewpoint different from their own without first being warned.
Ultimately, Students for Life at MUOH decided not to put up the display, as the warning signs would have discouraged people from viewing the display, likely the very people they were trying to reach. These signs would also have forced Students for Life at MUOH to communicate to the entire campus that its display and its message is somehow dangerous or harmful, something that no pro-life group would choose to say.
Today, Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit on behalf of Students for Life at MUOH to protect their constitutional rights. University policies leave the door open for officials to discriminate against viewpoints they do not like or to compel students to express messages they would not voluntarily convey.
The MUOH policies require student groups:
- To submit a request form in order to exhibit on campus seven days in advance;
- To explain the message and purpose of the exhibit;
- To publicly identify themselves as the student group sponsoring the exhibit; and
- To agree that university officials can edit the display in any way they want.
University officials have unchecked power to impose additional requirements, such as including a warning sign. They also can approve or reject exhibiting requests, based solely on their own discretion.
Though Miami University of Ohio claims to encourage free speech and debate on campus, its student code of conduct defines “disorderly conduct” to include any expression that “causes alarm, annoyance, or nuisance.” This vague standard can be used to ban certain viewpoints from campus, and it essentially becomes a heckler’s veto, allowing officials to silence some students simply because someone might be offended at what is said.
This is not the first time that such policies have been used to burden the speech of pro-life groups. The ADF Center for Academic Freedom has defended Students for Life chapters at Queens College in New York, Fresno State University in California, and Kutztown University of Pennsylvania – to name just a few.
Universities should never be able to ban certain viewpoints on campus just because they disagree with them or find them offensive. And they should never be able to force students to express a government-mandated message, especially when it undermines the message students are trying to convey.
Encountering different viewpoints on campus is an important part of the college experience and of life in a free society, not a traumatic experience that requires a warning sign. Today’s students will be tomorrow’s legislators, judges, and voters. If university officials are teaching them that the appropriate response to a viewpoint with which they disagree is to censor it, they will carry that understanding with them into the public square as well.
The ADF Center for Academic Freedom is working to ensure that college officials respect the constitutional rights of their students so that the university can be a true “marketplace of ideas.”