After all the college cases I’ve worked on, going back to the days when I was working for a law firm and doing pro bono First Amendment cases on the side, to working at FIRE, to now running the Alliance Defense Fund Center for Academic Freedom, I thought I couldn’t be surprised. I thought I’d seen just about every kind of censorship imaginable and seen just about every speech code that could be created. But the Spokane Falls (Washington) Community College has proven me wrong.
Earlier this week, a Spokane Falls student, Beth Sheeran, filed suit against her college after a campaign of threats, intimidation, and attempted compelled speech. What was Beth’s crime? She and her fellow members of a campus Christian organization wanted to distribute some pro-life literature (sample here) and post pro-life materials in a campus display case — a case previously used by other expressive organizations.
The college said no. Well, actually, they did more than that. They told the group that its materials (which, among other things, highlighted the toll abortion takes on African-American children) were “hate.” They also told the group they couldn’t post pro-life material unless they also displayed pro-abortion propaganda as well. In other words, if the group wanted to make its voice heard, then it had to also help distribute the other side’s message. Imagine a requirement that the Democratic party distribute Republican talking points and rebuttals at the Democratic National Convention.
But the story gets worse. When Beth and other members of her group resisted the university and pledged to go forward with the pro-life event, administrators actually showed up at the group’s planning meeting, threatened them with expulsion, and distributed absurd “Stop the Hate” materials under the college’s “bias reporting” program. Convinced they were on the verge of being thrown out of school, the group was intimidated into silence.
A quick look at the college’s materials shows their astounding scope. According to the “Pyramid of Hate,” actions such as “justifying biases by seeking out like-minded people” or “accepting negative information” or using “non-inclusive language” are literally the first steps to genocide. (There goes my affinity for fellow Battlestar Galactica fans — I guess if we sci-fi geeks stick together, then we’re just three steps from blowing up the set of Grey’s Anatomy). It goes without saying that the materials are both overbroad and vague.
Beth is pressing her challenge. She filed a motion for preliminary injunction at the same time she filed her complaint, and the first hearing is scheduled for next month. Hopefully, by next school year, Beth and her friends (along with every other student at the college) will be free to speak.