Supreme Court Term's Impact on Campus Free Speech

Charles Koch Institute's Senior Fellow for Free Speech and Toleration Casey Mattox, who spoke on campus free speech at the RNLA's National Policy Conference in April, described how three First Amendment cases from the Supreme Court's October 2017 term would impact free speech on college and university campuses.  First, on Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky:

The Mansky decision means that universities must not only avoid viewpoint discrimination; they must affirmatively enact policies eliminating the discretion that could allow it. . . . In other types of government forums — for example, parade or rally permits on public streets or parks — the Supreme Court had previously required that the discretion of the decision makers must be “bridled” by fixed and objective criteria. A government’s failure to create these objective standards to limit the decision maker’s authority was itself unconstitutional because of the risk of viewpoint discrimination. 
Some attorneys have argued that this "unbridled discretion" doctrine is limited only to traditional public forums (such as public parks and streets) and does not bind universities. Thus, it was permissible for administrators to make recognition, funding, or other decisions on vague or unspecified criteria, and the burden remained on students to show that they had been discriminated against because of their viewpoint. . . . But the decision in Mansky eliminates any doubt that the unbridled-discretion doctrine applies in any forum, including those commonly found on campus. Universities will now have to ensure that administrators or student governments making decisions about student expression are guided by fixed, neutral, and objective criteria — protecting students from hidden viewpoint discrimination.

Second, Mr. Mattox writes of the impact of Janus v. AFSCME:

Public universities require students to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars per semester in “student activity fees.” . . . In Southworth v. Board of Regents, University of Wisconsin Systemthe Supreme Court rejected a First Amendment compelled-speech challenge to these mandatory fees. . . . After JanusSouthworth may be in question. It is noteworthy that the Court’s 49-page opinion, surveying its prior precedent, omits any mention of the Southworth exception from the rule that government may not force people to fund others’ speech. The Court’s strong decision in Janus against compelled funding of others’ speech, and overturning the Abood decision on which Southworth largely rested, may lay the groundwork for a new challenge to Southworth. Even if Southworth itself isn’t threatened, universities should examine whether their student-organization funding systems are really like the one upheld in Southworth. To the extent that a university’s student-fee allocation program directs these mandatory fees toward specific groups or tiers of student-group funding in ways that advantage certain views, they may be at greater risk. And, as noted above, Mansky at least places the burden on universities to demonstrate that they have strictly limited discretion over student-activity-fee allocations to make it more difficult for viewpoint discrimination to happen.

And finally, on NIFLA v. Becerra: 

Some professional schools and degree programs have sought to impose as speech codes the professional-ethics codes developed to apply to members of those professions. These codes are often written broadly (e.g., prohibiting “unprofessional behavior”) by voluntary professional associations and not meant to be strictly applied by government. Speech codes such as these are routinely deemed unconstitutional when drafted by universities and applied to all students. Some colleges and programs have argued that they may nevertheless enforce a professional-ethics code against students in that particular program — including its limits on “unprofessional” speech. The Court’s virtually complete rejection in NIFLA of new First Amendment exceptions, including one unique to “professional speech,” should make it more difficult for institutions to justify these professional-speech codes under the First Amendment. 

The Roberts Court, particularly in the last term with the addition of Justice Gorsuch, has been a strong speech-protective Court.  Judge Kavanaugh has a strong record on free speech cases and will likely continue this trend when he is confirmed to the Supreme Court.  While the Court does not hear many campus free speech cases, mainly because universities' speech-suppressing policies are usually clearly unconstitutional and quickly dropped or invalidated once challenged, its First Amendment jurisprudence has many implications for free speech on campus.