University and college campuses are prime locations to advocate for life, both because college-age women are an abortion-vulnerable population, and because young people in general tend to be more receptive to the pro-life message. Yet college administrators often seem to be hard-wired to restrict pro-life speech, viewing it as offensive or too controversial. Over the last few months, two groups of pro-life advocates worked closely with Life Legal Defense Foundation attorneys to successfully push back unlawful restrictions on their free speech activities.
In California, a small group of pro-life students were reaching out at Ventura Community College using signs and leaflets to communicate with passing students in an open plaza on campus. They received a visit from the campus chief of police who told them not to display signs larger than 240 square inches. The group had previously been on campus and had read the college speech policy. They were able to point out that it only applied to posted signs, not to hand-held signs. At that point in the conversation, the college vice-president arrived with a brand-new speech policy that regulated both size and content of posted and hand-held signs. The explanation for the change in policy was that people were complaining about the signs. The advocates were told that if they did not comply with the new policy, they would be escorted off campus and could end up in jail under charges of resisting or obstructing an officer.
The group had the foresight to record their conversation (a recording that is legal under California law), and were able to share the recording with Katie Short, Life Legal Defense Foundation’s Legal Director, who also happens to be the mother of two of these courageous pro-life students.
After reviewing the facts, Ms. Short sent a letter to Ventura Community College in which she explained the situation and laid out the very clear ways in which the College was violating the First Amendment. She also indicated that her daughters and the other students would be returning to the campus within the next few months, asking for assurance that their rights would be respected.
The college’s legal counsel responded with written assurance that, after review, the College would enforce its policy consistent with the First Amendment. With this letter in hand, the pro-life students were able to return last month and have a successful, peaceful outreach on campus.
Meanwhile, in Mississippi, another small group of pro-life advocates had a similar experience.
Kendall Boutwell and several other activists have regularly shared the truth about abortion and the Gospel in an outreach at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) for the past couple of years. The activists stand next to their free-standing signs and hand out pro-life literature to students passing by on the busy college campus.
Last fall, the University suddenly informed Mr. Boutwell that his group would no longer be able to use the free-standing signs because they violated “school policy.” Boutwell had several conversations with the University’s administration about this supposedly new policy and learned that it wasn’t a new policy at all. A radical pro-choice group was angry about the message on Boutwell’s signs and had pressured the University to use an existing policy concerning unattended signs posted by student groups to oust Boutwell from the campus.
Boutwell contacted LLDF immediately for assistance. LLDF’s Senior Staff Counsel, Allison Aranda, contacted the Dean of Students and attorneys for the University, directing their attention to the inapplicability of the cited “sign policy” to Boutwell’s activities and underscoring the unconstitutionality of their demands. The University agreed to allow Boutwell to continue to use the signs through the end of the fall semester but insisted that the policy would be strictly enforced at the start of the Spring semester in January.
After careful research of USM’s “sign policy” and other free speech policies, LLDF confidently told Boutwell that his attended free-standing signs did not violate the University’s policies. Armed with the truth, Boutwell and others went back to USM at the start of the Spring 2015 semester and continued their life-saving efforts as they have been doing for years. Several key administrators observed Boutwell’s activities and did not order him to remove the signs.
It appears that the University backed down from its original claims that Boutwell’s signs violate school policy.
A valuable lesson was learned not just by the pro-life activists involved but also by all of us engaged in pro-life work. Standing for truth even in the midst of opposition and adversity is the cornerstone of freedom. Such stands, in conjunction with thorough research and clear communication, lead to greater freedom for all.