Good news for students at Temple University and other universities in Philadelphia. They are not going to be suspended or expelled for attending church or canvassing on behalf of political candidates.
In response to COVID-19, the City of Philadelphia put strict limits on public gatherings. Indoor gatherings are limited to 25 people, while outdoor groups were recently expanded to allow up to 150 people. Social distancing and masks are required. These extraordinary restrictions already significantly limit freedom of association in the name of public health. They might also be constitutionally dubious. Indeed, a federal judge just recently declared that Pennsylvania’s less restrictive gathering limits were likely unconstitutional.
But because there was an outbreak among some of Philadelphia’s roughly 450,000 college students, the City recently went further to announce that students should not gather at all regardless of the size. The only comparable restrictions were placed on high-risk senior citizens in assisted living communities.
The City adopted this gathering ban as guidance and urged local universities to “[s]trongly discourage and make efforts to prevent gatherings (other than academic classes) of any sie, whether on campus or off-campus, and communicate clearly to students that they should avoid such gatherings.” Temple University dutifully followed the City’s lead and announced that students would be required “to avoid all social gatherings” and that any violations of this policy could result in suspension or expulsion from campus.
This policy was troublingly vague and unclear. As written, it appeared to apply to any gathering for any purpose. For instance, a student could have been suspended or expelled for getting together with others to phone bank on behalf of a political candidate, or for attending a protest or religious worship service even outside of the City of Philadelphia.
Such a policy would be problematic at any time. Students do not give up their constitutional rights when they enroll at Temple University. And a policy singling out students would be strongly disfavored under constitutional law. But this policy was even more troubling in the middle of a national election. During this election season, many Temple University students wish to participate in a wide range of election-related gatherings. For instance, students might help prepare yard signs at a precinct office, ask questions at a town hall meeting, participate in a phone bank, canvass door to door, or participate in a political protest. These gatherings all involve core political speech and are vital to American democracy. I spoke with several students at Temple who voiced concern over the risk of being disciplined by their University for engaging in core political speech.
Pacific Legal Foundation, a public interest law firm that fights for free speech and other individual rights, sent the City of Philadelphia and Temple University a letter raising these constitutional concerns.
Fortunately, Temple University did the right thing and clarified that its “COVID-19 protocols do not interfere with any student’s First Amendment right to assemble.” In particular, students would be allowed to “volunteer for the upcoming elections, participate in protests, or attend gatherings that comply with city rules” without being subject to University discipline. Temple’s decision is an important recognition of the free speech rights of students in Philadelphia and for the principle that we do not give up our fundamental rights during a pandemic.