What is the Leonard Law?
The Leonard Law is a law in California passed in 1992 that applies the First Amendment to schools in the state. It is intended to require that all schools in California protect all speech that the government is required to protect. The Leonard Law was amended in 2006 to include public higher education, such as the University of California system.
The Leonard Law applies to private schools, which is unique in the United States. In most jurisdictions, private schools have wide latitude to curtail students’ right to free speech. Public schools have far less leeway, since they are extensions of the state government and thus must abide by the First Amendment and its caselaw. However, the Leonard Law extends such protections to private schools in California.
The Leonard Law states that:
No private postsecondary educational institution shall make or enforce a rule subjecting a student to disciplinary sanctions solely on the basis of conduct that is speech or other communication that, when engaged in outside the campus or facility of a private postsecondary institution, is protected from governmental restriction by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution or Section 2 of Article I of the California Constitution.
In practice, this means that private schools cannot create speech codes or take disciplinary action over student speech that would be covered under the First Amendment were the speech taking place somewhere else. Schools still have some room to police speech, given that the Supreme Court has carved out certain limitations to the First Amendment specifically for education institutions, but the Leonard Law greatly extends speech protections for California students.
The Leonard Law also allows students to file lawsuits against schools seeking injunctive and declaratory relief. This provision creates a method for students who believe their right to free speech is being infringed to seek immediate intervention from a court.
Additionally, the Leonard Law excludes religious institutions from its requirements.
The Leonard Law & Stanford
Stanford University, the California university currently ranked sixth in the nation, has a checkered history with the Leonard Law. In 1994, a group of Stanford students sued the university on the grounds that the school’s speech code was in violation of the Leonard Law. In 1995, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Peter G. Stone ruled for the plaintiffs in Corry v. Stanford, overturning the speech code and in the process, confirming that the Leonard Law was constitutional and did not violate the First Amendment rights of Stanford as an institution.
In 2020, the Leonard Law and Stanford again appeared to collide, this time over invitations to guest speakers. As colleges have become more polarized, political speakers have increasingly turned into flashpoints for debate, protest, and sometimes violence. Generally, conversative speakers have been the target of harassment, protest, complaint, and heckling, though speakers on the left have also received similar treatment. Administrations across the country have taken varying stances, with some banning controversial speakers from campus and others welcoming them.
Stanford is no stranger to such issues. In May of 2020, the Stanford Daily ran an article detailing the speaker controversy on campus and analyzing the impact of the Leonard Law. The Stanford College Republicans argue that the Leonard Law allows the organization to host speakers free from interference by the school administration. However, this interpretation of the law has not yet been tested in court, and many legal scholars have argued that the Leonard Law merely pertains to discipline and does not prevent schools from refusing to host certain speakers.
Could the Leonard Law Work in Other States?
The Leonard Law could absolutely work in other states, and perhaps even nationally. The right to free speech is fundamental to American values and our tradition of personal liberty. Schools routinely violate the spirit of free speech, and it is certainly possible to prevent such infringement on the state level.
Free speech is more than the text of the First Amendment. Government is not the only institution which attempts to engage in oppression and silencing. Private schools, meant facilitate education and intellectual inquiry, all too often fall prey to ideology and dogmatism. Academic freedom is immensely important and is key to forming robust, intelligent, curious citizens. The liberty to ask questions, argue, and investigate is how students learn. Adoption of the Leonard Law in other states would enshrine this freedom for all students, public and private.
On the federal level, a version of the Leonard Law would almost certainly require a Constitutional Amendment. While possible, it would be logistically challenging and would almost certainly be an overreach of federal power.