Boise State University, Free Speech, and Religion


Boise State University has a long history of problems with free speech, especially when religious-based content is involved. On September 8, 2015, Boise State University officials sent out a statement regarding the Arbiter, the student newspaper, not accepting an advertisement promoting the “Origin Summit” event. The official statement reads, “Boise State University values and embraces the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution for student-run college newspapers. The student leaders at The Arbiter have the freedom and the responsibility to make decisions on both advertising and news content in the student paper.”

I am glad Boise State University is recognizing the 1st Amendment for their student newspaper, but they have a funny way of recognizing it for the rest of their students and faculty with free speech zones, last minute extorting money out of students for security, and approving literature content for student groups. On August 14, 2015, House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia) sent out a letter to both the University of Idaho and Boise State University involving their failure to comply with the 1st Amendment that essentially asks “What are their corrective courses of action?” Goodlatte asked for a response by August 28, 2015. (LINK). Asking student-editors to rely on Dr. Seth Ashley, advisor to the Arbiter, and other university officials might not be the wisest course of action. I would advise the student editors to get an outside legal opinion.

The Arbiter is refusing to sell advertising to three groups: Creation Summit Inc., the Northwest Science Museum, and Engage Truth. Engage Truth is an on-campus faith-based organization and this is where the trouble begins. The student newspaper is refusing to print an ad for a student group based upon viewpoint discrimination. The fact the Arbiter did not even look at the ad actually hurts them. Is Engage Truth being treated differently in a negative manner because it is faith-based? I am not asking if you or I believe in creationism. I am asking if 14th Amendment rights are being preserved for students that believe in creationism?

The normal newspaper protections under the 1st Amendment do not apply here. The claim is the Arbiter is independent from the Boise State University faculty and administrators and the university administrators back that up. I disagree. When was the last time anyone saw anything truly critical of the Boise State University administration in the Arbiter? For example, I read about the sexual assault lawsuit represented by Gloria Allred in a recent Idaho Statesman article and not the Arbiter; you would have to search for articles over a year old to find information in the Arbiter and the most critical comment I could find was “the University is tight-lipped.” This suggests there is strong control of content in the Arbiter and that has been there for a long time. Is the Arbiter staff fearful of retaliation or was this their means of getting the jobs there in the first place? The lack of independence of the Arbiter and the University administration would make the refusal by the Arbiter a state action.

Arbiter managing editor Connor Jones demonstrated he does not comprehend the 1st Amendment when he said, “At that time we didn’t really believe it fit with what we were trying to do at The Arbiter and it could potentially draw away from our content and create some division.” I prefer “speech cannot be stifled by the state merely because it would perhaps draw an adverse reaction from the majority of people, be they politicians or ordinary citizens, and newspapers. To come forth with such a rule would be to virtually read the First Amendment out of the Constitution and, thus, cost this nation one of its strongest tenets [476 F.2d at 579].”