Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Rights in retrograde on US campuses

Young voices are in the vanguard of change, none more powerful than the teenage winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousafzai, who nearly lost her life for speaking out about Pakistani girls’ rights to receive 
an education.

Yet the “rights revolution” is leaving behind the one place where respect for individual liberties should be the easiest sell: the campuses of America’s schools and colleges. It is literally true that the legally protected rights of young people are worse off than they were 40 years ago, a statement that can be made of no other group 
in America.

While recent years have seen an African-American president in the White House, three women simultaneously on the Supreme Court bench, and powerful new legal protections for LGBT citizens and the disabled, the rights of students are 
in retrograde.

The Supreme Court’s Hazelwood standard, which in 1988 stripped high school journalists of virtually all constitutional protection, is increasingly being applied to adult-aged college students as well. A federal district judge in Alabama even used Hazelwood, which was about the rights of teenagers to publish uncensored news in a student newspaper, to dismiss the case of a 56-year-old nursing student who was kicked out of graduate school for voicing discontent about the fairness of the 
disciplinary system.

Punitive state laws are singling out students for criminal prosecution for speech that is constitutionally protected for all other citizens, including a statute in North Carolina that makes students ridiculing school employees on social media punishable by a year in jail (a copycat bill is pending now 
in Mississippi).

Schools and colleges are expanding their punitive authority to reach into students’ off-campus personal lives by policing social media – even hiring contractors to scan Facebook and Twitter for forbidden keywords – and forcing students to sign away their rights in “social media contracts” as a condition of taking part in extracurricular activities. In Minnesota, the state Supreme Court has created a new “social media exception” to the First Amendment that leaves college students vulnerable to discipline if they say anything that violates “established professional conduct 
standards,” even at home on 
a Saturday.

Ironically, the same social media platforms that have empowered young people to overthrow oppressive governments throughout the developing world are having the opposite effect in the United States.

State laws can help. Since 2012, twelve states have enacted statutes limiting the authority of colleges to demand the login information for students’ non-public social media accounts, and bills are pending to add Arkansas and Maryland to the list.

North Dakota is on the verge of becoming the eighth state to enact a statute reversing the impact of the Hazelwood ruling, giving young people the same autonomy to express themselves in the pages of student media that they already have on their T-shirts and baseball caps.

But attitudes as well as laws must change. Americans need to take a collective chill pill and understand momentary lapses in taste and discretion on social media for what they are – opportunities for learning, not for expulsion or arrest.

And we must reject the fanatical image-consciousness that is behind much of colleges’ and schools’ obsessive attempts to control student speech. When a school or a college insists, “Students represent the school, and you will be punished if you say anything that hurts the school’s image,” here is what our ears should hear: “Citizens represent the government, and you will be punished if you say anything that hurts the 
government’s image.”

That sentiment belongs in a George Orwell novel, not in the handbook of an educational institution.

Attorney Frank D. LoMonte is executive director of the Student Press Law Center (, a nonprofit advocate for student free-speech rights based in Washington, D.C.

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