Friday, December 01, 2017 1:20 pm
University in Ohio sued by anti-abortion group
JUSTIN WM. MOYER | Washington Post
A student group at a university in Ohio sued the school Wednesday after administrators allegedly demanded it post a warning on an anti-abortion display.
Miami University is a school of about 20,000 students in Ohio, with a regional campus in Hamilton, a town outside Cincinnati.
Students for Life, an anti-abortion group at the school, said administrators wanted the group to post "warning signs" around an anti-abortion display planned for October. It was going to be called "Cemetery of the Innocents," and "consists of small crosses placed in the ground in a confined area to represent the lives lost to abortion."
The group had been allowed to mount the display for the last three academic years, according to the suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio. It had also previously generated controversy and was vandalized in 2015, the suit said.
This year, administrators sought conditions for approving the display, according to the complaint, leading Students for Life to nix it.
"Defendants refused to approve the display unless plaintiffs agreed to post warning signs around campus that effectively urged people not to view it, forcing plaintiffs to present a 'trigger warning' for their own display," the lawsuit read.
"When plaintiffs explained that they did not wish to post these warning signs because they would undermine their display's purpose and message, defendants insisted that these signs were required and that university policy authorized them to require them."
The university's demand violated the First Amendment, Students for Life alleges.
"The university fails to protect students against content and viewpoint discrimination, requires its officials to evaluate the content and viewpoint of student expression, and requires students to waive their right to control the message they convey and their right to speak anonymously through an exhibit," the suit said. "These policies and practices chill protected student speech and disable spontaneous and anonymous student speech on campus."
A spokeswoman for Miami University said the "lawsuit appears to be the result of an unfortunate misunderstanding at Miami University's Hamilton campus."
"All Miami University students and student organizations have First Amendment rights to free speech," Claire Wagner, the school's communications director, wrote in an email. "As a result, the university does not approve or disapprove of any student organization's display based on content or subject matter. Miami University does not require trigger warnings."
The complaint cited emails between the group and Caitlin Borges, Miami's director of student activities, that discussed the need for a warning.
According to the suit, Borges wanted signs "because she feared that the display might cause 'emotional trauma' for those who might view it and because she wanted to help these individuals 'better protect and manage their emotional reactions to the display.'"
"You can say something like, 'The Students for Life are displaying their annual Cross Display from October 29th-November 5th,'" Borges wrote, according to the suit.
Students for Life objected.
"I completely understand the emotions . . . some [of] our community members might experience by seeing this display and I really appreciate you pointing this out to me," Ellen Wittman, a student at the school and Students for Life's president, wrote. "However, as an advocate for pregnant and parenting students, as well as mothers healing from loss, I am afraid posting these signs will turn away the very women we would like to help."
When Borges told them the signs were required, the group decided not to proceed with the display, the suit said.
The complaint also pointed out other campus groups, including one that mounted a display for "Trans Day of Remembrance" in November, did not require warning signs.
"This display could have caused some individuals to experience 'emotional trauma' upon seeing it," the complaint said.
Students for Life was represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal organization designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit watchdog organization that tracks such groups.
The Alliance Defending Freedom often represents conservative students in free-speech cases, emphasizing -- as it did in the Miami University complaint -- that "the cornerstone of higher education is the ability of students to participate in the 'marketplace of ideas' on campus."
It has successfully advocated for students in free-speech cases before, working earlier this year with an anti-abortion group at a Pennsylvania university to change rules on campus chalkings. And it represented two teenage anti-abortion protesters who were confronted by an assistant principal outside Philadelphia.
In a pending Supreme Court case, the group is representing a Denver baker who refused to sell a cake to a gay couple.
"It is generally views on the conservative side of the spectrum who find their rights imperiled on campus," Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Travis C. Barham, who is representing Students for Life, said. "The majority of administrators and many students are on the left ideologically, and tend to give a pass to groups that agree."