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Conservative student conference offers advice on defending campus free speech

Schools have multiple ways they try to circumvent the First Amendment

Students at the recent Young America’s Foundation high school leadership conference learned about how to defend their free speech rights on campus and the different ways school officials will try to violate their First Amendment protections.

Kara Zupkus (right), a spokesperson for the conservative student group, told students about the many ways that administrators will try to stop activists from sharing their views, methods seen on both high school and college campuses.

“There are a bunch of different ways that schools can violate your rights, and a lot of times it can be outwardly – they are very obviously doing it,” Zupkus said. “A lot of times it can be very passive.”

These methods include using “inclusivity” as a pretense for banning speech, penalizing students who speak out and treating groups differently.

Zupkus gave a hypothetical example of a school denying funding because an event might not be well-attended. She told students to “do some digging” and see what other groups had been subjected to as part of their own process to apply for funding.

Schools promoting diversity initiatives “often where we see, most recently now, Critical Race Theory being pushed on these campuses… they really do try to shut down your speech under the guise that you’re not being inclusive enough,” Zupkus said.

Schools have also “penalized” students for speaking out. Zupkus gave the example of the Iowa State professor who said she would punish students for speaking out against Black Lives Matter and abortion.

This is a good example of leveraging media coverage to change a discriminatory policy, Zupkus said.

Use public information to your advantage

Students at public schools and universities can utilize Freedom of Information Act requests for information.

“YAF would be happy to file a FOIA request on your behalf,” Zupkus said.

Because litigation can be costly and time consuming, she says oftentimes administrative meetings and using the press to put pressure on the school are done first.

One example happened in 2019, when the conservative nonprofit filed a public records request for messages among student activity officials.

Those messages, involving University of Kentucky employees Caitlyn Walsh and Meghan Jennings discussing ways to deny the YAF group its status.

“When light is shed on their actions and words, a troubling picture emerges,” former YAF spokesperson Spencer Brown told The College Fix at the time.

The threat of litigation alone helped Luke Wong get his YAF group approved at a New York high school, Zupkus said.

Use political power to get what you want

Zupkus said that something as simple as a letter of concern from an elected official can lead to a school taking action in support of a YAF group.

She also highlighted YAF’s new Congressional allies in the “Free Speech Caucus” with U.S. House members Jim Jordan and Kat Cammack.

She said it will be a “direct line” between students and lawmakers.

Student activists should be focused on what they stand for and not just being opposed to liberalism, Zupkus said in her closing comments.

“At the end of the day you should be focusing on promoting what you are for, and not necessarily what you are against,” she said. “I think a lot of times leftists are on the hunt to cancel people, and you don’t want to give them the fuel for that fire.”

MORE: Free-speech nonprofit wants student government reined in from denying groups


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About the Author
College Fix contributor Angelique Clark is a student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas studying journalism. She is the creator of Life Dress, a hand-painted, pro-life apparel business, and has worked with Students for Life of America. Her plans to attend graduate school for education.