University That Censored Students’ Pro-Life Chalk Messages Forced to Change Its Policy

State   Steven Ertelt   Jun 12, 2017   |   12:31PM    Kutztown, PA

Kutztown University of Pennsylvania has changed its policy regarding chalked messages on sidewalks after Alliance Defending Freedom sent a letter in March on behalf of the campus chapter of Students for Life. University officials had scrubbed from the campus’s sidewalks pro-life messages that student members of the group had chalked even though the school permitted other groups to chalk.

The students wrote the life-affirming messages onto various sidewalks and other uncovered walkways as part of National Pro-Life Chalk Day but later learned that university officials used a scrub brush to wash the messages away, saying they were “just following orders.” When students replaced the messages, officials scrubbed some of them away again.

“No public university can silence student speech simply because officials don’t like what the students are saying,” said ADF Legal Counsel Travis Barham. “The original chalking policy only permitted messages the university agrees with, but the revised policy eliminates that unconstitutional restriction and allows all views to be expressed. We commend Kutztown University officials for revising their policy to respect freedom of speech for all students.”

The university’s original “Posting and Chalking Guidelines” expressly regulated the “content” of student expression by prohibiting, among other things, messages that “advertise activities, events, or groups…incompatible with the University’s Statement on Non-Discrimination.” The revised policy no longer contains these unconstitutional limitations on the content or point of view expressed in chalked messages.

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“Under the initial guidelines, the university could have censored a huge number of messages that officials didn’t find palatable, and that’s what happened with Students for Life. The new policy ensures that won’t happen again to anyone,” said ADF Senior Counsel Casey Mattox, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom. “It’s vitally important that public university officials everywhere model the First Amendment for college students who will be tomorrow’s legislators, judges, teachers, and voters rather than communicate to a generation that the Constitution doesn’t matter. We hope other universities will follow Kutztown University’s example in rectifying bad policies that are inconsistent with the ‘marketplace of ideas’ that a university is supposed to be.”

“Too frequently we see that public colleges and universities feel they can engage in censorship of a student group just because officials don’t agree with the viewpoint of those students,” said Students for Life of America President Kristan Hawkins. “Playing favorites while stifling free speech is, sadly, an all-too-common response of abortion advocates who prefer to silence opposition rather than have a free exchange of ideas. We are very pleased that Kutztown University Students for Life will be able to share their message freely just as other students do.”

ADF is representing or has represented Students for Life chapters in five recent legal matters across the country, including a case at Fresno State University in California that also involves the censorship of chalked pro-life messages on sidewalks.