Shouldn’t pro-life students have the same free speech rights as millionaire athletes?

The uproar over Vice President Mike Pence’s decision to leave the Colts-49ers game after some NFL players took a knee during the national anthem again highlights the intense cultural debate over free speech that seems of utmost importance to the media and activists. Yet not all “speech” is treated as equal in coverage and attention.

Over the last few weeks, the free speech rights of students on college campuses have been violated as peaceful chalk messages from students have been destroyed, flyers pulled down and permits for new pro-life groups and speakers slow walked through the approval process to prevent voices from being heard. If you haven’t heard about the college blockade taking place even this week, perhaps it is because the students whose voices are being forcibly silenced favor life over abortion. And while they may not get the attention that millionaire athletes can garner, their points of view are no less valid. 

Pro-life students represent a growing majority who want to have the same free speech rights as other groups.

For the past 11 years, Students for Life has been on the forefront of the campus free speech movement, witnessing a rising tide of opposition to those who do not agree with the dictates of a politically correct worldview. As national opinion on abortion has shifted toward the pro-life viewpoint over the past few years, I mistakenly thought that -- apart from some aging, hostile school administrators -- most of the drama was behind us.

But then the 2016 election happened. And now, pro-abortion forces, fearing the withdrawal of taxpayer dollars from Planned Parenthood, pro-life Supreme Court appointments, and a barrage of pro-life legislation and regulations, are doing everything they can to silence a growing pro-life majority and fight back against the voices of the very people they claim to represent.

As the New Yorker observed this week: “In the half century between the elections of Governor Reagan and President Trump, the left and the right would appear to have switched sides, the left fighting against free speech and the right fighting for it.”

And on college campuses, a polluted political environment is turning ugly. A recent poll even shows that 20 percent of students now support using violence to prevent controversial speakers from being heard on campus.

Students for Life of America is unfortunately all too aware of the attacks on free speech on high school and college campuses. Consider just a few examples from last spring:

  • When Queens College denied Norvilia Etienne the right to start a Students for Life group on her campus, we immediately went into action, contacting our attorneys at Alliance Defending Freedom. They filed a lawsuit on her behalf and within three days, Queens College backed down and let Norvilia start her group, which has taken off on campus. We’re still dealing with the administration now, though, as the group has been denied equal treatment in receiving student activity funding and their club status may be still be revoked under the university’s existing policies.
  • At Fresno State, a professor bragged on campus about erasing our chalked messages directing women to non-violent health care and directing others to do so as well. He claimed it was part of his free speech to destroy messages that he did not like. These situations happen regularly, such as at Kutztown University, where school officials scrubbed away our messages, and more recently at George Mason University, where school police told our Students for Life members that is was the freedom of speech rights of the pro-abortion protestors to vandalize our messages.
  • At California State University, San Marcos, a Students for Life group applied for funding for an on-campus display, but was told there was a $500 cap on their requests. Yet, LGBT groups on campus were able to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding from student government, without an apparent cap.

The list could go on. Our student groups are routinely denied equal access to school fees funding. For example, Colorado State University denied our group’s request for a"‘Diversity Grant," meant to bring awareness of a variety of issues, because a pro-life speaker could offend some people at the school.

The right to free speech on campus must be protected. At Students for Life of America, we welcome debate on issues and do not try to squelch the free speech rights of groups that might disagree with us, such as pro-abortion or feminist groups. In fact, we welcome it. College and high school should be a training ground for young people to explore, express, and share ideas; in just a few years, they will be running the show in Washington and on Wall Street.

Pro-life students represent a growing majority who want to have the same free speech rights as other groups. And officials in charge of high schools and colleges must stop slow-walking Students for Life group registrations with the cynical hope of delaying approval until after interested students have graduated. High schools and college must stop denying our groups funding for speakers and events. And high schools and colleges must stop using unconstitutional arguments about us being "controversial," "political," or "religious" as a cudgel against our clubs' formation.

Just as heated debates over slavery, civil rights, and women’s rights swept through the culture as conversations and confrontations debated the value of all lives, no matter the race, creed, color or gender, so to a rigorous debate over the value of preborn life must be heard. Students on college campuses deserve the same respect as millionaire athletes in expressing and sharing their points of view, for without a right to life, no other debate can truly engaged. 

Kristan Hawkins is president of Students for Life of America.