Restore the First Amendment at Shippensburg University

While the pursuit of diversity at our state and nation’s universities is frequently discussed by journalists and academics, its reach has not been all-encompassing. Indeed, diversity of opinion, and even diversity of thought, is frequently unwelcome at our institutions of higher learning, and violations of the First Amendment are commonplace on our college campuses across the nation.

One of the latest battles in the fight over students’ First Amendment rights is occurring right here in the Commonwealth. Shippensburg University, a taxpayer-funded college in Central Pennsylvania, has a speech code that violates a Constitutionally protected freedom.

A lawsuit, brought by lawyers working with the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, seeks to restore the lost free speech rights of Shippensburg students. Few students at Shippensburg knew that their school’s vague and overbroad speech code mandates that student speech should not “provoke, harass, intimidate, or harm another.” Sounds nice, but how can any thought-provoking discussion occur in an environment that sanitizes and outlaws passionate expression that may make someone feel “uncomfortable”? Beyond threatening an education, in the most liberal sense, Shippensburg’s speech code is forcing students to give up their First Amendment rights.

Fortunately, a preliminary injunction issued in early September by the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania ordered Shippensburg University to stop enforcing the regulations that made up the university’s speech code. The court pointed out that “the First Amendment rights of Shippensburg University’s students would continue to be violated,” if the university did not act immediately.

In addition, U. S. District Judge John E. Jones, III, who issued the injunction, wrote that “The language of the Code instructs students that they must ‘mirror’ the University’s ideals as they apply to racial tolerance, cultural diversity and social justice.” Punishment of thought crimes, was, up until this lawsuit, alive and well on the campus of Shippensburg University. Judge Jones’s conclusion that “these provisions could certainly be used to truncate debate and free expression by students,” could not be more appropriate.

Consider the ramifications of Shippensburg’s speech (and thought) code. Would you ever choose to live in a place where the “attitudes and behaviors” of “every member of the community” are considered by the legal authorities to be a legitimate subject for inquiry, let alone punishment? There are places in the world where this takes place—North Korea and Cuba are two examples—but neither are they renowned for their innovative thinkers or humane university environments, nor are a great number of people cramming into leaky boats in order to start a new life there. Such a policy could hardly be more destructive to the values of academic freedom and freedom of inquiry that mark a great institution of higher learning. Nevertheless, Shippensburg’s students and the taxpayers of Pennsylvania who foot the bill for part of their education are subsidizing violations of the U.S. Constitution.

In agreeing to grant a preliminary injunction in this case, Judge Jones appropriately relied upon the precedent case cited by the students’ lawyers in the suit against Shippensburg. In that 1943 Supreme Court opinion, West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, Justice Robert Jackson wrote some of the most famous words to come out of any Supreme Court case. Written during the darkest days of World War II, while America and the free world struggled for survival, Justice Jackson declared, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what will be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

Shippensburg President Anthony Ceddia—whose legal fees are being paid by the taxpayers of Pennsylvania—has not yet declared whether or not he will fight the injunction, but he has tried to minimize the significance of the court ruling by saying that it “focused only on seven sentences in the code of conduct.” Mr. Ceddia would do well to note that the First Amendment is only one sentence long and that, were we to remove any seven sentences from the Bill of Rights, the core tenets of American liberty would be eviscerated.

Suppressing speech at any college or university is unacceptable and carries untold public costs in weakened rights and lost innovation. In Shippensburg’s case, though, it is taking money directly out of the taxpayer’s pockets not only to suppress student speech but also to defend this suppression in a court of law. This issue is far from being fully resolved, but isn’t it time for Shippensburg University to embrace true diversity and put an end to such abuses of taxpayer money and violations of students’ First Amendment rights?

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Thor L. Halvorssen is an adjunct scholar with the Commonwealth Foundation and former Chief Executive Officer of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (