The Supreme Court’s 303 Creative decision: “A vital tool in the arsenal of student journalists”

Headshot of Lena Shapiro.

Commenting on the Supreme Court case 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, Lena Shapiro is an Assistant Professor and Director of the University of Illinois College of Law’s First Amendment Clinic. The mission of the Clinic is to support freedom of expression and civic engagement by enhancing law students’ understanding of the First Amendment and providing a resource for organizations, students, journalists, and citizens defending and advancing First Amendment protections.

The 303 Creative decision, delivered on the final day of a notably intense Supreme Court term, stands as an unexpected champion for First Amendment liberties. The Court sided with a website designer who, citing religious convictions, was unwilling to craft websites for same-sex couples. The crux of the decision lay in the First Amendment’s power, asserting that Colorado’s public accommodation law could not compel a website designer to produce expressive designs that broadcast messages contradictory to her beliefs.

While numerous critics argue that this verdict essentially hands out a “license to discriminate,” the majority opinion was firm in clarifying that it was not giving vendors a free pass to deny services to protected groups, including same-sex couples. At its heart, the 303 Creative case anchors itself in the right to decline speech perceived as clashing with one’s personal or editorial principles. This positions it within the larger discourse around compelled speech, often seen as the counterpart to the First Amendment.

The Implications for Student Journalism

But where does this ruling place student journalists, especially in an era where legislative measures might clash with editorial values? Consider a scenario (although nearly half the states are turning this into a reality with pending legislation) wherein a state legislature enacts a law restricting the usage of specific pronouns, creating tension with a student publication’s commitment to using chosen names and pronouns. Even though 303 Creative doesn’t directly tackle student journalism, it carves out a potential pathway for student journalists to resist impositions from school boards or state legislatures seeking to control their content.

The parallels are evident: Just as the web designer in the 303 Creative case was shielded by her First Amendment rights when making decisions anchored in her beliefs, student journalists can similarly assert their right to make editorial judgments without external meddling.

Broader Horizons for Editorial Autonomy

Editorial autonomy is more than just a privilege; it’s the lifeblood of free press. When student journalists are pressed to modify or suppress their content due to external pressures, it doesn’t merely affect a single story or article. It impacts the ethos of the entire publication and can deter young journalists from pursuing stories that matter.

The 303 Creative decision, while rooted in a different context, offers a beacon of hope. By emphasizing the dangers of compelled speech and the sanctity of individual beliefs, it empowers student journalists to champion their voices by retaining control over their reporting. It reminds educational institutions that while they play a role in guiding and mentoring their students, they must also respect and uphold the fundamental freedoms that form the backbone of our democracy.

Final Thoughts

While the future will undoubtedly bring new challenges and debates, the 303 Creative decision serves as a vital tool in the arsenal of student journalists. As they navigate the intricate balance between editorial integrity, school policies, and legislative measures, this ruling offers a reminder of the enduring power and importance of the First Amendment. It’s not just about the freedom to speak; it’s also about the freedom not to speak when the message doesn’t resonate with one’s beliefs.