Department of Education Issues Rules to Protect Free Speech and Religious Liberty for College Students

September 25, 2020
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by Keisha Russell, Counsel • 4 min read

Recently, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) issued the Religious Liberty and Free Inquiry Final Rule to protect free speech and religious liberty for college students.

The Rule accomplishes this goal in two main ways. First, it ensures the equal treatment of religious student groups at public institutions. Second, it requires private institutions to adhere to their own stated policies and promises regarding freedom of speech. The Rule is a necessary and important step to protect students of all faiths and perspectives on campus.

Disturbingly, over the past few decades, some public universities have effectively evicted religious organizations from campus by stripping these organizations of the right to communicate with students via college emails, websites, and campus-wide events, and deny them funding. These universities subjected religious groups to stricter standards than other student groups, requiring religious groups to accept members or leaders that fundamentally disagree with the organization’s beliefs and mission.

Fortunately, because of the administration’s Final Rule, public institutions risk losing federal funding if they bully religious organizations into abandoning their religious beliefs in order to have a presence on campus. The new Rule responds to the U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Trinity Lutheran, Espinoza, and Little Sisters of the Poor, all of which revitalized constitutional religious liberty protections. First Liberty wrote amicus briefs in all three cases in support of religious freedom.

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Next, the Final Rule requires private colleges and universities to follow their own “stated institutional policies regarding freedom of speech, including academic freedom” to be eligible for federal grants. This latter provision is immensely important as religious students and organizations face discrimination and intimidation at private colleges all over the country. Many universities promise that they are free speech havens, but not all hold fast to that promise.

For example, earlier this year, First Liberty defended a doctoral student at a private university who encountered just such a situation. Alarmingly, the student was accused of sexual misconduct for simply stating that she believed in traditional marriage. The university threatened to punish the student with penalties up to and including expulsion. The university failed to live up to its own internal policies mandating respect for students’ free speech and freedom of religion. Ultimately, First Liberty succeeded in clearing the student of all allegations and solidified her right to live out her faith on campus. The Final Rule will help to address such gross injustices at private institutions.

Universities and colleges that incite a hostile environment for students with unpopular religious beliefs are rebelling against the true goal of higher education. Educational institutions should foster an open and safe environment where students freely express their beliefs and ideas and learn to engage in objective discourse with one another. Instead, these institutions ban, vilify, and defund religious beliefs and practices that don’t align with the popular culture.

The DOE’s action is an important step towards affirming the importance of religious liberty on college campuses. First Liberty Institute stands ready to defend students of all faiths if they face attacks on their religious freedom as they seek to exercise their constitutional rights.

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