College basketball’s March Madness officially starts today, but this month’s stories of campus controversies have already been lighting up the scoreboard. A renowned conservative scholar and liberal professor are shouted down and physically abused by a mob. Students are caught on camera openly admitting to double standards when it comes to religious freedom. And, a university employee is caught washing away pro-life chalkings.
Sadly, this is not a string of isolated incidents but rather reflective of troubling trends in academia. And while these stories may be shocking to many, they sound all too familiar to us.
As college students at Georgia Tech in the early 2000s, we endured literally years of censorship and condemnation whenever our views were not in line with the faculty and administration’s extreme Leftist political agenda. In the name of “tolerance” and “diversity,” Institute officials forced us to take down a display confronting radical feminism, pressured us to participate in Coming Out Week, and prevented our organizations from accessing school resources – just a few examples from our litany of run-ins with the campus tolerance tyrants.
Professors, academic deans, and eventually the President of Georgia Tech told us we were “not a good fit” for the school because of our deeply held beliefs; that it was “people like you” who were responsible for the lack of civility on campus; and that we needed to “go through mediation” to change our views on matters of morality and public policy. When confronted about the administration’s hypocrisy and indoctrination, one dean brazenly admitted, “Students have been indoctrinated for the first 18 years of their lives by their parents and by their churches; we only have four years to undo the damage.”
Against this backdrop, it became clear that the university had several unconstitutional policies that infringed on the First Amendment rights of all students, and these policies were being subjectively enforced against us. So on March 16, 2006 – exactly eleven years ago today – we took Georgia Tech to court.
We were represented by Alliance Defending Freedom’s Center for Academic Freedom, and the goals of our federal civil rights lawsuit were: (1) to hold GT accountable for selective enforcement of its speech codes and speech zone, which resulted in mainstream conservative speech often being considered “hate speech” and “intolerant,” while politically-charged, extreme Leftist speech was considered part of the “intellectual diversity” purportedly valued by the Institute; (2) to challenge GT’s unlawful discrimination against religious and political groups by refusing to fund them with the Student Activity Fee; and (3) to confront GT’s endorsement of certain religious views and ridicule of others through the Institute-run “Safe Space” program.
In other words we wanted free speech for all students, we wanted equal access for all organizations, and we wanted the Institute to cease promoting certain religions over others.
Our case took nearly three years in federal court, but our team was victorious at every stage and we successfully got the unconstitutional policies overturned with judicial oversight. As a result, all current and future Georgia Tech students had greater rights to speak freely and assemble on campus without fear of reprisal, and some parts of our case even set precedent for other universities to follow. In one of the rulings, Judge J. Owen Forrester stated, “It is puzzling to the court that the promotion of tolerance would take the appearance of such intolerance,” and in another opinion he even noted “the lack of candor of Georgia Tech throughout the litigation of this case.” Finally, on December 23, 2008, the court put an exclamation point on its previous rulings by declaring us the prevailing party and ordering Georgia Tech to pay our attorneys’ fees. It was the legal vindication we had hoped to receive when we set out on this journey, and though the road leading up to that point wasn’t easy, we knew it was worth every step.
As we reflect on our case eleven years later, we are encouraged by the advancement of free speech and religious liberty efforts; yet we remain keenly aware that America’s first freedom is under assault on college campuses across the country. The continued efforts by those on the Left to create “safe spaces” and condone “trigger warnings” are not only absurd but also dangerous, as an entire generation of students is being “educated” in a sheltered environment that is not reflective of reality. Such censorship hinders the free exchange of ideas on campus and prevents students from wrestling with life’s deepest questions, and the long-term ramifications for society are troubling.
Thankfully, there are some phenomenal organizations dedicated to confronting these injustices, advancing free speech and religious liberty in the courts of law as well as the court of public opinion, including the aforementioned Alliance Defending Freedom, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and Becket Fund.
But the battle to protect our first freedom is bigger than higher education, and – given the trajectory of our society – it’s one you won’t be able to sit out eventually. As Erick Erickson often says, “you will be made to care whether you want to or not.”
In our current cultural climate where conversations about constitutional rights – on the Left and the Right – are often characterized by confusion rather than clarity, it is vital that we understand the nature of the battle to protect our first freedom. We must, as Russell Moore says, “build collaborative majorities to play a long game of cultural renewal,” stewarding our platforms to advance the values we cherish more broadly within our circles of influence. We must demonstrate intellectual honesty by fighting for the rights of everyone, always seeking to expand the marketplace of ideas and trusting that truth will win out in the end. And we must model to our harshest critics what it looks like to afford our fellow citizens the dignity of difference, even as we passionately advocate for the ideas we believe are best for America’s flourishing.
Eleven years ago our love of liberty and our love for Georgia Tech compelled us to take a stand. Although the road to victory was fraught with difficulties, we were confident that our actions would make a difference and we are ever grateful to all who stood with us along the way. We are continually inspired by those who, often at great personal sacrifice, stay true to their faith and seek to advance freedom amid the cultural chaos. However daunting the road ahead appears, time and again we’ve seen that small steps can lead to significant changes and we urge everyone to consider your role in advancing our first freedom… you may encounter some unexpected adventures along the way, but trust us, years later you’ll look back and realize it was worth every step.
By Orit (Sklar) Kwasman and Ruth Malhotra
Orit Kwasman works as a communications and fundraising consultant and resides in Scottsdale, Arizona. Ruth Malhotra works in public relations for a Christian ministry and resides in Atlanta, Georgia. Both women were co-recipients of the 2009 Ronald Reagan Award from the American Conservative Union. Follow them on Twitter at @OritKwasman and @RuthMalhotra.