Civil Rights

Yes, there’s a major free speech problem on our campuses

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At 16 years old, Norvilia Etienne’s mother told her a story that changed her life forever, setting her course to become a courageous, compassionate champion for the vulnerable.

Not long after, in 2016, Norvilia would experience a second rude awakening, this time at the hands of so-called “tolerant” administrators at Queens College in New York City.

{mosads}All Norvilia asked for was equal treatment, but that was apparently too high a bar for Queens College to reach. In the end, Norvilia had no option but to sue the school to win back her right to free speech.

With hundreds of students like Norvilia forced to win back their civil rights through the courts, Norvilia’s case points to a much larger trend, which itself has prompted the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to hold a second hearing on the same subject in the past year.

Along with myself, Princeton professor Robbie George and Middlebury College professor Allison Stanger were on hand to paint a rather disturbing picture of the current state of campus free speech.

But Norvilia’s struggle to speak and act freely on campus is worth taking in all by itself. She’s the face of an increasingly sidelined group of young people our college administrators would rather ignore. And if you ever get the chance to meet her, Norvilia isn’t a person you’ll forget any time soon.

As a teenager herself, Norvilia’s mother was already struggling alone to care for a young son when she found out she was pregnant a second time. With her boyfriend making it clear he’d take no responsibility for their child, Norvilia’s mother felt deeply pressured to resort to abortion as her only escape.

If not for her grandmother’s faith-fueled encouragement, it’s likely Norvilia never would have drawn a breath.

Instead, she gave birth to Norvilia and doubled down to make ends meet.

As you can imagine, Norvilia was stunned to hear for the first time, as a teenager, just how close she came to becoming another statistic prior to her birth. In fact, she was downright angry. But that anger soon turned to a joy that fuels Norvilia’s passion to help young women and girls facing the very same pressures, which weighed heavy on her own mother’s heart just a few years ago.

In that youthful vigor, Norvilia arrived on campus as a freshman at Queens College in New York City—long dubbed “The Abortion Capital of America”—ready to offer hope and help to her classmates. In short order, she began setting up an on-campus pro-life club affiliated with Students for Life of America.

And that’s where the trouble started for Norvilia. Despite checking all the boxes to become an officially recognized club, Norvilia’s application was slow-walked to its inevitable rejection, all because it supported a view—Norvilia’s—that had been silently disqualified ahead of time.

Public universities and colleges like Queens College are some of the most diverse places in the entire country, spending millions of dollars every year on all kinds of diversity initiatives. But the irony is, these campuses are some of the most ideologically intolerant places in the entire country.

What so many students like Norvilia are learning the hard way is that uniformity of thought breeds intolerance. Neither Norvilia nor any of our society’s future legislators, judges, and voters should have to ask for a permission slip to speak on campus. The First Amendment is their permission slip.

And thankfully, this is what our courts continue to recognize. Since we launched our Center for Academic Freedom a decade ago, we’ve secured nearly 400 victories for free speech on America’s college and university campuses—including Queens College, which finally backed off its restrictive policy after almost two years of fighting.

Standing on the firm foundation of our constitutionally protected freedoms, we’ve seen public universities and colleges reverse their arbitrarily restrictive speech codes, ditch their constrictive speech zone policies, and return to their rightful place as a true marketplace of ideas.

Free speech on campus is a no-brainer. We owe it to bright, aspiring leaders like Norvilia from Students for Life to hold our public universities and colleges accountable.

Tyson Langhofer is Senior Counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, where he serves as the organization’s Director of the Center for Academic Freedom.

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