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Free speech: private vs. public universities

Over the next several months, Scroll will deliver a series on the first amendment. Scroll will analyze how the rights promised in the constitution have developed over time and what their future looks like. This article is in the review of freedom of speech.

Students’ freedom of speech looks different depending on what university they attend. Public schools are bound by the First Amendment since their funding and rights come from the government. Private institutions have the opportunity to place other ideologies above free speech since their funding comes elsewhere. Yet, many private universities uphold some sort of free speech policy.

In recent years, college campuses have disinvited a number of controversial speakers, leading some to believe the freedom of speech is threatened on campuses throughout the country. Colleges disinviting speakers due to student backlash has happened for decades, yet recently these rescinding of invitation captured national attention. In 2017, the University of California, Berkeley planned to host a right-winged speaker, Milo Yiannopoulos, but when 150 masked protestors grew violent, the university eventually had to cancel the speaker, according to a UC Berkeley news release.

More occurrences like this led to President Donald Trump issuing an executive order to protect free speech in secondary education. He announced the order at a Whitehouse briefing in March 2019. The order promised to hold public institutions to the First Amendment and private institutions that promise free speech by withdrawing federal grants to schools that restrict free speech.

“We will not stand idly by and allow public institutions to violate their students’ constitutional rights,” Trump said in the briefing. “If a college or university doesn’t allow you to speak, we will not give them money. It’s very simple.”

Since this order remains relatively new, little evidence can prove whether it has been effective. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a group defending the free speech of university students since 1999, believes the order can reinforce positive change to college campuses, as seen in a statement they released shortly after the President signed the order.

Joe Cohn, the legislative and policy director of FIRE, believes this order will further guarantee students’ rights.

“I don’t know, that it was necessary in the strictest term of the word necessary, meaning the only way,” Cohn said. “But in terms of — could an executive order on campus free speech be helpful? Absolutely. It can be helpful to have the federal government using its authority to tell institutions that they really need to honor students free speech.”

This order affects public and most private institutions similarly, but religiously affiliated institutions are exempt from its effects. Which introduces the question: how does the freedom of speech look on different campuses?

Public Universities

All public universities are required to uphold the freedom of speech promised in the First Amendment for their students and faculty members. This includes freedom of expression and often makes room for leniency in attire and language on their campuses, though most universities have a code of conduct of some kind.

Grace Baker, a junior attending Utah Valley University, recognized that her campus endorses an environment of free speech when she got to attend addresses from a wide range of speakers.

“I got to learn about this girl who had to change her name seven different times so she could escape North Korea,” Baker said. “I got to listen to Andrew Yang — who I still hate — but he got to come to our college and tell us about his policies, and it wasn’t against anything because UVU’s so accepting, and I’m super grateful for all of that.”

Baker enjoys the marketplace of ideas UVU supports as well as the freedom of expression her public school offers her, especially since she’s familiar with BYU, a neighboring university’s honor code.

“I like that I can wear leggings if I want to,” Baker said. “I like that I can dye my hair bright pink if I want to. I like that I can grow a mustache if I want to. None of those things will get me in trouble.”

Private Universities

When private universities claim to offer their students free speech, they can be legally held accountable to do so. Now they can also lose federal research funding if they do not do so.

“They could define free speech in a tortured way,” Cohn said. “That doesn’t really mean free speech, we wouldn’t let them get away with, you know, slapping the term free speech, but describing it in a way that is incompatible with those values.”

Since the First Amendment not only guarantees freedom of speech but freedom of religion as well, private universities can choose to be religiously affiliated. When they do this, they can choose to hold freedom of religion and association above freedom of speech on their campuses. This is how schools like BYU-Idaho can have honor codes and freely discuss religious topics. This is also why religiously affiliated private universities are exempt from the March 2019 executive order.

Though free speech isn’t explicitly protected at these institutions, BYU-I students can still experience an array of opinions on campus. Ileana Hunter, a junior studying political science, has discovered different perspectives during her time at BYU-I.

“In high school, I was kind of shy and I wouldn’t say anything that could start an argument,” Hunter said. “Then college came around, and I was like, ‘oh, it’s good to share what you believe.’ It puts different opinions out there, different perspectives. Instead of having just one perspective, you get to have everyone’s.”

While free speech looks different in private and public universities, they share a common goal to educate. It’s up to the individual student to decide if they want to put their freedom of speech above all else in their education, or attend a private institution where ideologies such as religion are prioritized.


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