Pennsylvania university scrubs chalked pro-life messages from sidewalks

ADF sends letter to Kutztown University on behalf of Students for Life chapter
Monday, March 13, 2017

Attorney sound bites:  Travis Barham | Casey Mattox

KUTZTOWN, Pa. – Alliance Defending Freedom sent a letter Monday to the president of Kutztown University of Pennsylvania after officials there scrubbed chalked pro-life messages from the campus’s sidewalks even though the school permits other groups to chalk.

Members of the Students for Life chapter at the university wrote life-affirming messages onto various sidewalks and other uncovered walkways on campus as part of National Pro-Life Chalk Day but later learned that university officials used a scrub brush to wash the messages away, saying they were “just following orders.” When students replaced the messages, officials scrubbed some of them away again.

“University officials can’t chalk up their censorship to ‘following orders’ to enforce an unconstitutional campus policy,” said ADF Legal Counsel Travis Barham. “The university’s chalking policy only permits messages the university agrees with. Nothing could more clearly violate the First Amendment than a policy that silences students based on whether university officials like or don’t like what the students are saying.”

The university’s “Posting and Chalking Guidelines” permit chalking “on sidewalks and other uncovered walkways” but then expressly regulate the “content” of student expression by prohibiting, among other things, messages that “advertise activities, events, or groups…incompatible with the University’s Statement on Non-Discrimination.”

“Those guidelines could censor a huge number of messages that university officials don’t find palatable, and, apparently, that’s exactly what happened here,” said ADF Senior Counsel Casey Mattox, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom. “While Kutztown University officials should be modeling the First Amendment for college students who will be tomorrow’s legislators, judges, teachers, and voters, they are instead communicating to a generation that the Constitution doesn’t matter.”

“From mandating that the ‘content of the chalking must be consistent’ with its content restrictions to placing those restrictions in a bulleted list under a boldfaced ‘Content’ heading, KUP could not possibly make it more clear that it engages in the very content discrimination that has been prohibited on campus since at least 1981…,” the ADF letter explains. “Based on the fact that you met with our clients and assured them that you would take action, we trust that you…will take the necessary steps to protect the constitutional rights of all your students.”

The letter asks the university to avoid the possibility of a lawsuit by issuing a campus-wide statement condemning the scrubbing of Students for Life’s chalked messages, immediately revising its policy to remove all content- and viewpoint-based restrictions and to protect anonymous speech, and requiring all departments, offices, and personnel associated with censoring Students for Life’s speech to attend a seminar on fundamental First Amendment principles.

“Too frequently we see that public colleges and universities feel they can engage in censorship of a student group just because officials don’t agree with the viewpoint of those students,” said Students for Life of America President Kristan Hawkins. “Kutztown University is playing favorites while stifling free speech, which is, sadly, an all-too-common response of abortion advocates who prefer to silence opposition rather than have a free exchange of ideas.”

Students for Life of America is the nation’s largest pro-life youth organization and currently serves 1,031 groups in colleges, high schools, and medical schools across the U.S. ADF-allied attorney Jeremy Samek of Independence Law Center is serving as local counsel on this matter.
 
  • Pronunciation guide: Barham (BEHR’-um)

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
 
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