This hypothetical case study was developed in partnership with the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University.
Before/during class (10 minutes)
Read Public Forum Doctrine (First Amendment Encyclopedia)
Class time needed
At the conclusion of this activity, participants will be able to:
- Describe the differences among public, limited and nonpublic forums
- Demonstrate the application of forums to this hypothetical case
- Appraise the specific area mentioned in this case as either public or limited and “rule” accordingly.
You attend a large, four-year public university in midwestern America.
One of the school’s longest-standing traditions is a three-part bulletin board in the main entrance lobby of the Student Union.
On the left is a map of the world with pins that represent the hometowns of the current student body. There are pins in almost every state in America, and many international pins.
On the right is a map of the state your university is in and a written history, along with some historical photos. Your university was the first public university in the state, and so it plays an important role in its history.
The middle display changes each week to showcase different student organizations, which are selected by a competitive application process. Once an organization is selected, the members of that organization have creative freedom to design an engaging and informative display about their organization.
The Crusaders create their display, explaining that they are an interdenominational organization of Christians dedicated to “bringing Christ to all people.” Their display includes information that they believe the Bible is the written word of God and that their mission is to bring all people to come to love Jesus. The biggest feature of the display centers on their efforts to bring relief and aid to Middle Eastern women threatened by the Taliban and other authoritarian regimes.
After just one day, the university removes The Crusaders’ display, citing the First Amendment’s “establishment clause,” which prevents the government from promoting one religion over another. No other organization has ever been asked to remove its display.
The group asks the university to replace the display, and the university refuses.
The Crusaders announce plans to sue the university for violating its free speech rights. After all, in the past, displays included organizations like Fellowship for Christian Athletes and Atheists of America.
- Is the Student Union lobby at a state university a traditional public forum? What about the bulletin board in the lobby — does it qualify as public or nonpublic?
- Whose views do you think are represented by the display: the student organization whose information is posted, or the government’s (the university’s)?
- Based on you answer to the above, how do you think a court will rule — in favor of the organization’s right to display or the university’s right to deny them space so that a government entity (the university) isn’t promoting one religion over others?
- What other kinds of speech (or in this case a display) might be banned in this kind of place? Why?
For further reading
Can a Christian flag fly at City Hall? The Supreme Court will have to decide (The Conversation)
Government Speech Doctrine (First Amendment Encyclopedia)
Forums (Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School)