Public university forbids criticizing religious group as a cult

Daniel Harper, a Cameron University (Oklahoma) student, was handing out fliers criticizing the World Mission Society as a supposed cult. (Naturally, I express no opinion on whether or not the World Mission Society is a “cult,” whatever exactly that term might mean.) The university forbade him from doing this, stating:

Having reviewed policy 10.6 DISCRIMINATION (FOR OTHER THAN SEXUAL OR RACIAL/ETHNIC HARASSMENT) and having followed the procedures outlined at 10.7 EQUAL OPPORTUNITY GRIEVANCE PROCEDURE in the Employee Handbook the finding in this matter is as follows:

10.7.7.3 DETERMINATION OF IMPROPRIETY
The basic values of religious freedom are provided to every citizen of our country. The determination in this case was that the distribution of a flyer that was specifically created to denounce another person’s religious beliefs by [publicly] displaying and distributing the flyer resulted in discrimination based on religion.

Well, yes, every citizen has religious freedom — but that means freedom from government suppression (and, one might argue, freedom from private discriminatory exclusion prohibited by certain statutes), not freedom from criticism. Indeed, freedom of religion and of speech itself protects the right to denounce religions. Religious beliefs and religious groups, no less than political beliefs and groups other beliefs and groups, are eminently proper subjects of criticism. A public university is forbidden by the First Amendment from trying to squelch such criticism, whether it’s of conservative Christianity, Islam, Catholicism, Mormonism, Judaism or the World Mission Society.

Harper is suing (represented by Alliance Defending Freedom), claiming the action and the underlying university policies violate the First Amendment; I expect him to win handily. For more on the cases striking down such university speech restrictions, see this post by Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Thanks to Prof. Howard Friedman (Religion Clause) for the pointer.

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy. Before coming to UCLA, he clerked for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the U.S. Supreme Court and for Judge Alex Kozinski on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Volokh is the author of the textbooks The First Amendment and Related Statutes (4th ed. 2011), The Religion Clauses and Related Statutes (2005), and Academic Legal Writing (4th ed. 2010), as well as over 70 law review articles. Volokh is also an Academic Affiliate for the Mayer Brown LLP law firm.
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Eugene Volokh | May 22