Last week, there was a critical ruling in (former) Eastern Michigan University graduate student Julea Ward’s lawsuit against multiple school officials, including a number of her former professors. For those who don’t have instant recall of my months-old blog postings, Julea filed suit after being expelled from her graduate counseling program. The facts are extraordinary:
Eastern Michigan University expelled Julea Ward because she was unwilling to vocally support same-sex sexual conduct in counseling sessions. They expelled her in spite of the fact that the she referred to another counselor the only client for whom her stance was relevant and had never even engaged the issue with that client. They expelled her in spite of the fact that she followed the exact process for referral recommended by leaders in the profession. In short, they expelled her not because she harmed anyone but simply because she was unwilling to express support for things she did not believe.
Applying an astonishingly broad policy that prohibits students from even “condoning” discrimination (whatever that means), the university informed Julea that she would have to “see the error of her ways” and change her “belief system” to stay in school. She refused to change her deeply held beliefs, refused to voice support for actions she finds immoral, and found herself out of the program — in spite of a stellar GPA.
In last week’s ruling, the court turned back the university’s request that school officials enjoy “qualified immunity” from any damage claims, instead finding that:
Ward has sufficiently plead and come forward with evidence that the EMU defendants’ act of dismissing Ward violated First and Fourteenth Amendment rights so clearly established that a reasonable official in their position would have clearly understood that they were under an affirmative duty to refrain from such conduct.
To be clear, this does not mean that the individual defendants in the case are personally liable, merely that they may be held liable later in the case. But this is still quite significant. It sends an unmistakable signal to university administrators that they do not have a free hand in dealing with students, that students’ First Amendment rights are “clearly established,” and there can be much more at stake in any given case than injunctive relief (which is significant, but has no personal impact on university officials).
This case is far from over, and this ruling is but one of many that will come down in the next weeks and months, but for now personal accountability has prevailed.