Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights, Inc. (FAIR)
547 U.S. 47 (2006)

Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court.

When law schools began restricting the access of military recruiters to their students because of disagreement with the Government’s policy on homosexuals in the military, Congress responded by enacting the Solomon Amendment. That provision specifies that if any part of an institution of higher education denies military recruiters access equal to that provided other recruiters, the entire institution would lose certain federal funds. The law schools responded by suing, alleging that the Solomon Amendment infringed their First Amendment freedoms of speech and association.

The Solomon Amendment neither limits what law schools may say nor requires them to say anything. Law schools remain free under the statute to express whatever views they may have on the military’s congressionally mandated employment policy, all the while retaining eligibility for federal funds. As a general matter, the Solomon Amendment regulates conduct, not speech. It affects what law schools must do—afford equal access to military recruiters—not what they may or may not say.
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Having rejected the view that the Solomon Amendment impermissibly regulates speech, we must still consider whether the expressive nature of the conduct regulated by the statute brings that conduct within the First Amendment’s protection. In O’Brien, we recognized that some forms of “‘symbolic speech’” were deserving of First Amendment protection. But we rejected the view that “conduct can be labeled ‘speech’ whenever the person engaging in the conduct intends thereby to express an idea.” Instead, we have extended First Amendment protection only to conduct that is inherently expressive. In Texas v. Johnson, 491 U. S. 397, 406 (1989), for example, we applied O’Brien and held that burning the American flag was sufficiently expressive to warrant First Amendment protection.

Unlike flag burning, the conduct regulated by the Solomon Amendment is not inherently expressive. Prior to the adoption of the Solomon Amendment’s equal-access requirement, law schools “expressed” their disagreement with the military by treating military recruiters differently from other recruiters. But these actions were expressive only because the law schools accompanied their conduct with speech explaining it. For example, the point of requiring military interviews to be conducted on the undergraduate campus is not “overwhelmingly apparent.” An observer who sees military recruiters interviewing away from the law school has no way of knowing whether the law school is expressing its disapproval of the military, all the law school’s interview rooms are full, or the military recruiters decided for reasons of their own that they would rather interview someplace else.

The expressive component of a law school’s actions is not created by the conduct itself but by the speech that accompanies it. The fact that such explanatory speech is necessary is strong evidence that the conduct at issue here is not so inherently expressive that it warrants protection under O’Brien. If combining speech and conduct were enough to create expressive conduct, a regulated party could always transform conduct into “speech” simply by talking about it. For instance, if an individual announces that he intends to express his disapproval of the Internal Revenue Service by refusing to pay his income taxes, we would have to apply O’Brien to determine whether the Tax Code violates the First Amendment. Neither O’Brien nor its progeny supports such a result.

Although the Third Circuit also concluded that O’Brien does not apply, it held in the alternative that the Solomon Amendment does not pass muster under O’Brien because the Government failed to produce evidence establishing that the Solomon Amendment was necessary and effective. The Court of Appeals surmised that “the military has ample resources to recruit through alternative means,” suggesting “loan repayment programs” and “television and radio advertisements.” As a result, the Government—according to the Third Circuit—failed to establish that the statute’s burden on speech is no greater than essential to furthering its interest in military recruiting.

We disagree with the Court of Appeals’ reasoning and result. We have held that “an incidental burden on speech is no greater than is essential, and therefore is permissible under O’Brien, so long as the neutral regulation promotes a substantial government interest that would be achieved less effectively absent the regulation.” United States v. Albertini, 472 U. S. 675, 689 (1985). The Solomon Amendment clearly satisfies this requirement. Military recruiting promotes the substantial Government interest in raising and supporting the Armed Forces—an objective that would be achieved less effectively if the military were forced to recruit on less favorable terms than other employers. The Court of Appeals’ proposed alternative methods of recruiting are beside the point. The issue is not whether other means of raising an army and providing for a navy might be adequate. See id., at 689 (regulations are not “invalid simply because there is some imaginable alternative that might be less burdensome on speech”). That is a judgment for Congress, not the courts. It suffices that the means chosen by Congress add to the effectiveness of military recruitment. Accordingly, even if the Solomon Amendment were regarded as regulating expressive conduct, it would not violate the First Amendment under O’Brien.