The United States Supreme Court has employed forum analysis to determine when a governmental entity, in regulating property in its charge, may place limitations on speech. Recognizing a State's right to preserve the property under its control for the use to which it is lawfully dedicated, the Court has permitted restrictions on access to a limited public forum with this key caveat: Any access barrier must be reasonable and viewpoint neutral.
Hastings College of the Law (Hastings), a school within the University of California public-school system, extended official recognition to student groups through its "Registered Student Organization" (RSO) program. Several benefits attended this school-approved status, including the use of school funds, facilities, and channels of communication, as well as Hastings' name and logo. In exchange for recognition, RSOs wer required to abide with the school's Nondiscrimination Policy, which tracked state law barring discrimination on a number of bases, including religion and sexual orientation. At the beginning of the 2004-2005 academic year, the leaders of an existing Christian RSO formed petitioner Christian Legal Society (CLS), whose by-laws included the policy to exclude from affiliation anyone who engaged in unrepentant homosexual conduct or held religious convictions different from their faith. Hastings rejected CLS's application for RSO status on the ground that the group's by-laws did not comply with Hastings' open-access policy because they excluded students based on religion and sexual orientation. CLS filed a suit for injunctive and declaratory relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Hastings' refusal to grant the group RSO status violated its First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to free speech, expressive association, and free exercise of religion. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the District Court ruled for Hastings, holding that the all-comers condition on access to a limited public forum was both reasonable and viewpoint neutral and did not violate CLS's right to free speech. CLS appealed.
Did the refusal of Hastings to grant CLS "RSO status" violate CLS' rights to free speech, expressive association, and free exercise of religion?
In its decision, the Court noted that an "accept-all-comers policy" (AACP) compliance was a reasonable, viewpoint-neutral condition on access to the student-organization forum. According to the Court, CLS' exclusionary expressive activity was protected, but it had no constitutional right to state subvention of its selectivity. The Court held that the school could reasonably decide that the educational experience was best promoted by the AACP as it ensured that no student was funding a group that would reject her as a member. The school's desire to redress the perceived harms of exclusionary membership policies was an adequate explanation over and above mere disagreement with any group's beliefs. According to the Court, in seeking an exemption from the school's AACP, the group sought preferential, not equal, treatment. Hence, the Free Exercise of Religion Clause claim failed.