Feb. 16, 2015
In a bit of good news, a federal district court judge in Alabama has rejected a public university’s attempt to dismiss a lawsuit brought by pro-life students alleging that they were denied permission to demonstrate based on their views.
The university reportedly told the students in an e-mail:
“As you know, your organization advocates for a position that involves political and social controversy. Placing the crosses in proximity to Shelby Hall carries with it an implication that the College of Engineering endorses that position.”
Yet this “political and social controversy” was due to the students’ position on abortion. If the university was concerned with “controversy” connected to the topic of abortion, it might be able to prohibit all speech on that topic in certain areas on campus. But if, as alleged, the university was actually targeting the “controversy” arising from pro-life views, it would be targeting these pro-life students for their position on the issue of abortion, and would thus be engaged in view-point discrimination—something the government is strictly prohibited from doing. As the court noted:
“The plaintiff has evidence that permission was denied because the plaintiff “advocates for a position that involves political and social controversy.” The Court agrees with the plaintiff that this e-mail constitutes evidence that Mitchell and Steadman denied permission due to the plaintiff’s viewpoint (“position”) on abortion (pro-life). Because it was clearly established in February 2014 that such viewpoint discrimination violates the First Amendment, Mitchell and Steadman cannot receive qualified immunity with regard to these denials.”
Thus the students’ free speech claims will be allowed to proceed. At a time when free expression is often marginalized, it is good to see such clear and straightforward application of free speech law by courts, and observe the First Amendment doing what is designed to do—promote free expression and the exchange of ideas.