Oregon college sued for restricting free speech of pro-life student group

A Cemetery of the Innocents display set up by Students for Life of America, the nation's largest pro-life youth organization. | (Photo: Students for Life)

A Christian legal defense firm has filed a lawsuit against Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Oregon, on behalf of a pro-life student group for restricting speech to less than 2% of the campus.

The Alliance Defending Freedom filed the lawsuit this week over CCC’s policy limiting free speech to two small areas on its 100-acre campus. The policy also requires students to obtain permission at least two weeks before speaking in those areas.

“The only permission slip students need in order to speak on public college campuses is the First Amendment,” said ADF Legal Counsel Michael Ross, one of the attorneys representing students Marcos Sanchez and Emma Howell.

Sanchez and Howell lead the CCC chapter of Students for Life of America, a pro-life student organization with over 1,200 chapters at high schools and colleges nationwide. 

The lawsuit argues that the school's policies — particularly the requirement that student groups acquire two-week advance permission — hamper the student's ability to mobilize promptly in response to any news developments relevant to Students for Life's advocacy work. 

ADF asserts that the school's policies prevent the students from engaging in spontaneous expression and from promoting their events.

"For example, on Feb. 26, members of Students for Life hosted a debate on campus about the morality of physician-assisted suicide,” ADF explained in a blog post.

“While the students applied for, and received, approval from the college to host the event indoors on campus, they wished to promote the event outdoors between classes by handing out flyers and describing the services of local pregnancy resource centers. The students refrained from doing so, however, to avoid violating the college’s policies restricting speech.” 

The areas where students are permitted to speak freely on campus are called “Free Speech Zones.” 

ADF argues that all of the college’s grounds should be open for freedom of expression. Furthermore, ADF contends that CCC’s restrictions do not pass constitutional muster.

“Students don’t give up their constitutionally protected freedoms when they step on to campus or hold a specific viewpoint,” Ross added. “Our clients have the right to peacefully engage and persuade their peers. They also have the freedom to support pregnant and parenting students without censorship or harassment from their school.”

ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer, the director of ADF’s Center for Academic Freedom, stressed in a statement that “it’s so important that public universities model the First Amendment values they’re supposed to be teaching students.”

“Today’s college students are our future legislators, judges, and voters,” Langhofer noted in a statement.

“Pro-life students — like their peers — have the freedom to share messages of hope and healing without first asking college administrators for permission to speak.”

The Christian Post reached out to CCC’s general counsel for comment on the lawsuit. A response is pending. 

Students for Life of America President Kristan Hawkins said in a statement that across the U.S., her organization is “seeing incredible opposition to the pro-life speech of our student leaders and volunteers as they speak for the defenseless and educate their fellow students on abortion.”

“But the law and the Constitution are clear on the matter: Public schools cannot silence pro-life groups or force them to self-censor,” said Hawkins. “If Chemeketa Community College wants to respect every member of its community, it will clarify that Students for Life can participate in the open exchange of ideas and ensure that the entire college community becomes a ‘free speech zone’ for pro-life students and their peers.”

ADF was founded in 1994 to defend religious liberty and the sanctity of life. It has been at the forefront of notable legal cases related to the First Amendment. ADF has won nine Supreme Court cases related to First Amendment issues in less than a decade. 

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