Issue Analysis

Across the nation, a growing number of students’ rights on campus have been curtailed by universities and courts alike. Instead of being the “marketplace of ideas,” public universities and colleges remain places of vulnerability for students who wish to live their faith openly. Not only have students been limited, even silenced, on many issues, universities have been extremely forceful in their attempts to indoctrinate students to a secular worldviews. This has led to the educational field in college becoming one of the most hostile environments for students of faith.Despite our nation’s longstanding commitment to the free exchange of ideas among teachers and students at our public universities and colleges,religious freedom is being slowly chipped away by school officials who single out unpopular viewpoints for censorship, and those who seek to enforce a uniform ideology on cultural issues of the day.

-University students’ religious liberty has come under attack in academic work, in extracurricular activities, and in speaking freely in public areas of the campus.

-Schools use innocuous sounding “anti-harassment” or “non-discrimination” policies to limit the rights of students to express unpopular viewpoints, particularly religious beliefs.

-Students have been subjected to mandatory “diversity” training that seeks to enforce an officially-sanctioned ideology.

Some of the most egregious violations include efforts by university officials to coerce students to change their religious or political beliefs to conform to the faculty’s agenda, using the students’ academic livelihood as leverage.

In 2009, an honors student in the Eastern Michigan University counseling program was kicked out of school after she refused to counsel a client about his homosexual relationship. The student was told she must change her beliefs or face expulsion.[1] Fortunately, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the students’ First Amendment religious freedom after she was faced with no other choice but to file a lawsuit to challenge the university’s actions.[2]

Another student, at Missouri State University, was accused of violating the school’s standards when she refused to participate in a class assignment that required students to write letters to the Missouri Legislature in support of homosexual adoption.[3]

Infringements on students’ religious liberties have not been limited to academic programs. Some schools have tried to enforce restrictive policies to exclude religious student groups from campus. In June 2010, the United States Supreme Court decided the case of Christian Legal Society of the University of California-Hastings vs. Martinez. In the decision, the Court ruled that a state university did not violate students’ constitutional rights by prohibiting a student group from requiring its leadership to adhere to the group’s religious beliefs.[4] By holding Bible studies and requiring leaders to agree with the organization’s Statement of Faith, members of the student group were told that they were no longer a welcome organization on campus. Unfortunately, students at Arizona State University faced a similar situation in the mid-2000s and had to file a lawsuit to get the situation resolved for their group. Finally, many schools have created “free speech zones” – a misnomer used to describe restrictive policies that do not permit student speech without prior approval or that limit speech to tiny areas of campus during restricted periods of time.

Students’ Rights Based on the Constitution

Students do not lose their constitutional rights simply by stepping onto the public college or university campus. College students generally possess a broad range of constitutional rights on campus, even more so than K-12 public school students. Students’ rights are not unlimited, due to the educational purpose of the school and the need to maintain order and discipline, but the school’s interest is much weaker in dealing with adult college students than with elementary and secondary school students. The school may limit student activities only if the activities “infringe reasonable campus rules, interrupt classes, or substantially interfere with the opportunity of other students to obtain an education.”[5] Colleges and universities must treat religious speech by students the same as non-religious speech by students, and the school may not censor student speech or activities simply because school administrators do not like the student’s viewpoint.[6]

On a public college or university campus, students may:

-Share their faith. Students may pray, read their Bibles, discuss their faith, and engage in other religious activities during any non-instructional time, as long as they are not disrupting school order.

-Express their religious beliefs in school assignments. Students may express their religious beliefs, discuss religious figures, and draw religious artwork in school assignments without being penalized or rewarded on the basis of their religious content or viewpoint. The student’s work will be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance to the course curriculum or requirements of the assignment or coursework. For example, a student who is asked to write a paper about an important historical figure may choose to write about Jesus Christ, and the paper must be graded based on academic standards such as grammar, punctuation, and the quality of writing. On the other hand, if a student is asked to complete a set of math problems and instead draws a picture of an angel, the student’s work is not responsive to the assignment and may be penalized.

-Wear clothing, jewelry, or accessories that display religious messages or symbols. Most colleges and universities have few or no restrictions on student dress. If the school permits students to wear clothing, jewelry, or accessories that express any kind of message, the school may not single out religious messages for unfavorable treatment. For example, if students are permitted to wear T-shirts with sports team logos, the school may not prohibit T-shirts with religious symbols or messages.

-Distribute religious literature and fliers on campus. Students are generally free to distribute tracts or fliers on campus, subject to reasonable restrictions (on time, place, and manner) that apply equally to religious and non-religious materials. Schools may prohibit literature distribution during class instruction.

-Start or participate in a religious student club on campus. Religious student groups are entitled to equal access to campus facilities, equal access to university funding, and freedom from interference in the group’s internal governance and composition.

Note: This information applies only to public colleges and universities. A private institution is not obligated to respect the constitutional rights of its students, although private school students may be given enforceable rights under a student handbook or other policy.


If you or someone you know is a public college student whose rights may have been violated, understand that you are not alone. Nebraska Family Alliance and allies like Alliance Defending Freedom stand with you, and you can often win campus battles for freedom well before a lawsuit is filed. Check out other resources like to take action and learn more.

Talking Points

The First Amendment protects the rights of students to engage in religious expression.

State universities and community colleges must treat religious and non-religious messages and student groups equally.

Religious freedom is being slowly chipped away by school officials who single out unpopular viewpoints for censorship, and those who seek to enforce a uniform ideology on culture issues of the day.


University policies and practices restricting students’ religious liberty and freedom of speech are contrary to the core constitutional principles upon which our nation was founded. The U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that First Amendment protections should apply with no less force on college campuses than in the community at large.[7] In fact, the Court said: “The vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools.”[8] Protecting free speech and religious liberty are of the utmost importance on our college campuses. Future generations of students are at risk to losing some of their most important rights, and the future of our nation is imperiled when students are taught that government officials can censor their beliefs and expression.

This publication includes summaries of many complex areas of law and is not specific legal advice to any person. Consult an attorney if you have questions about your specific situation or believe your legal rights have been infringed. This publication is educational in nature and should not be construed as an effort to aid or hinder any legislation.
[1] Jeremy Tedesco, The Julea Ward Settlement: A Win for Religious Liberty, Jan. 4, 2013,–a-win-for-religious-liberty-n1478423/page/full (last visited Sept. 25, 2013).
[2] Id.
[3] Missouri School Sued by Student Who Refused to Support Gay Adoptions, USA Today, Nov. 2, 2006, available
[4] Christian Legal Soc. Chapter of Univ. of Cal., Hastings College of Law v. Martinez, 561 U.S. ___, 130 S. Ct. 2971 (2010).
[5] Healy v. James, 408 U.S. 169, 189 (1972).
[6] Id.
[7] Healy, 408 U.S. at 180.
[8] Shelton v. Tucker, 364 U.S. 479, 487 (1960).
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Nebraska Family Alliance is a non-profit 501(c)3 research and educational organization committed to strengthening the family. NFA is the only state-based family policy council in Nebraska that is an associate with Focus on the Family and CitizenLink.

Nebraska Family Alliance is a non-profit 501(c)3 research and educational organization committed to strengthening the family. NFA is the only state-based family policy council in Nebraska that is an associate with Focus on the Family and CitizenLink.