At the beginning of a new year, there is a valuable opportunity for reflection on the past year and what it means for the future. While 2010 was certainly not without its major victories for free speech, it also suffered some challenges. Here’s a quick look back at developments in ADF’s academic freedom cases in 2010 and what they mean for 2011:
Badger Catholic v. Walsh, et al. (University of Wisconsin):
Part of the ongoing battle against the University of Wisconsin for its discriminatory student fee program, Badger Catholic presents a challenge to the denial of student fee funding to a Catholic student group because its activities may involve student-led prayer, worship or proselytizing in violation of Rosenberger’s requirement of viewpoint neutrality. In September, the Seventh Circuit handed down its opinion, reaffirming that the Establishment Clause does not require such discrimination against religious student speech. The court ruled that the University must treat religious student groups equally to nonreligious student groups, in terms of granting them funding for their expression and allowing them space to meet on campus.
Badger Catholic was a huge win, but the battle isn’t over yet. Attorneys for the University of Wisconsin filed a petition for writ of certiorari to the United States Supreme Court in November.
Sheldon v. Dhillon (San Jose-Evergreen Community College District):
June Sheldon was an adjunct professor at San Jose City College. While teaching her class on human heredity, a student asked whether homosexuality was genetic or environmentally influenced. Ms. Sheldon responded that the issue was complex and referred the student to materials mentioned in the textbook, but one student was offended by her response and complained anonymously. The college district responded by firing Ms. Sheldon. At the end of 2009, the United States District Court for the Northern District of California refused to dismiss Ms. Sheldon’s First Amendment claims, holding that an instructor’s speech in the classroom is protected by the First Amendment, and in June 2010, a settlement was finalized with the District. As a result of the settlement, the District agreed to fully expunge any allegations of wrongdoing from Ms. Sheldon’s employment record and pay her $100,000 in damages. The Sheldon case represents a huge victory for faculty free speech, and its precedent can be used in the future to help protect professors’ rights.
Professor Kenneth Howell (University of Illinois):
Dr. Kenneth Howell, a well-respected and well-liked professor at the University of Illinois, was fired in July after teaching the Roman Catholic Church’s position on homosexual behavior in a class called Introduction to Catholicism, after a student (who was not even enrolled in the class!) complained. But after a few letters from ADF, and facing a groundswell of support by students and media scrutiny, the University reinstated Dr. Howell. Moreover, a few months later, a faculty committee issued a report on the situation and agreed that Dr. Howell was entitled to due process, that professors of religious studies may have a perspective in teaching their courses, just like any other professor, and that students don’t have a right to not to be offended. While the Howell situation did not involve a court ruling, the University’s corrective actions should serve as an example to other universities in the future when they are given the opportunity to protect the free speech rights of faculty members. The Howell situation should also serve as an encouragement to students to stand up for what’s right—the students who started the grassroots effort to get Dr. Howell reinstated played an integral role in this victory.
Indiana University of Pennsylvania
Despite the Third Circuit’s 2008 ruling in DeJohn v. Temple University, many public universities under that Court’s jurisdiction continued to retain unconstitutional speech policies which allowed a student to be punished for saying something that simply offended another student. In an effort to bring these policies into compliance with DeJohn, ADF allied attorneys sent letters to several universities, notifying them that their policies ran afoul of the Constitution and offering assistance in changing those policies. As a result of a letter sent by ADF allied attorneys Leonard Brown and Randall Wenger, IUP agreed to change their unconstitutional speech code. Hopefully more universities follow their lead in 2011 and voluntarily give up their unconstitutional policies.
Despite these victories, 2010 also presented some challenges:
In CLS v. Martinez, the Supreme Court ruled that University of California Hastings College of Law could have an all-comers policy without violating the First Amendment, even though, as the justices rightly pointed out, it made little sense. (Extensive analysis of the Court’s decision can be found here, here, here, and here, for a start.) Importantly, however, the Court remanded the case to the district court to determine whether there was discriminatory enforcement of the policy—in other words, whether CLS was targeted for unequal treatment under the policy. Given the evidence in the record regarding the other student groups that required their members and leaders to hold views in common with the purpose of the group, we are hopeful that CLS will get justice in the end. And because the ruling was quite narrow (virtually no other schools have an all-comers policy, probably because they are silly and stifle the marketplace of ideas), it had a lesser impact on free speech and associational rights than anticipated. In the words of Michael McConnell, we have lived to fight another day.
In Lopez v. Candaele (Los Angeles Community College District) and Rock For Life v. Hrabowski (University of Maryland, Baltimore County), the Ninth and Fourth Circuits, respectively, went the opposite way of the Third and Sixth Circuits in holding that students lack standing to facially challenge policies that restrict their speech. OSU Students Alliance v. Ray (Oregon State University) is currently awaiting an oral argument date at the Ninth Circuit after a district court judge dismissed the students’ complaint. While these rulings were certainly disappointing, ADF was able to obtain positive policy changes in all three of these cases. Adams, Ward and Keeton are also at the appellate level following disappointing district court rulings. All of these cases are still ongoing, and will be ones to watch for developments in 2011.
Finally, the Supreme Court heard Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn, a case that has implications for associational rights in the educational context. The opinion in this case is expected in Spring 2011, probably late March or April.
Given what’s at stake, 2011 promises to be an incredibly crucial year for student and faculty free speech in the courts.