Attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against Miami University of Ohio after its officials took numerous actions that shut down a pro-life display at the Hamilton campus. The lawsuit challenges the university’s policies that give officials broad powers to determine whether an exhibit can occur and what it can say—powers that officials used in Hamilton to impose a “trigger warning” on the local Students for Life chapter.
“No university official has the authority to censor student speech simply because of how someone might respond to it,” said ADF Legal Counsel Travis Barham. “Like all government officials, public university administrators have an obligation to respect students’ free speech rights. The First Amendment secures the freedom of all students to participate in the marketplace of ideas, and it prohibits university officials from imposing trigger warnings that restrict what some students can say to spare the feelings of others.”
Since 2015, Students for Life of Miami University of Ohio, Hamilton, has regularly conducted its Cemetery of the Innocents display on the campus’s Central Quad. The display features small crosses placed in the ground to commemorate the lives lost to abortion, along with an explanatory sign.
In October, Students for Life President Ellen Wittman e-mailed a university official to request approval to hold the display once again. The official responded by saying that the group could conduct the display only if it placed signs around campus warning people about its content. She justified this warning sign requirement by saying she feared that the pro-life display might cause “emotional trauma” for those who might view it and because she wanted to help them “better protect and manage their emotional reactions to the display.” Additionally, she offered to meet with the group to discuss “less harmful” ways of expressing its pro-life views.
This trigger warning requirement arose because the university’s speech codes give officials broad authority to grant or deny a group’s request to conduct an exhibit on campus. To conduct an exhibit, students must seek a permit at least seven business days in advance, explain the message and purpose of their exhibit, and agree to let university officials edit the display as they see fit. The lawsuit, Students for Life at Miami University of Ohio, Hamilton v. Trustees of Miami University of Ohio, points out that this sweeping authority allows administrators to deny permits for any reason, including unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination, and to control the message students convey by imposing conditions on approving these permits.
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“Today’s university students will be tomorrow’s legislators, judges, university presidents, and voters,” said ADF Senior Counsel Casey Mattox, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom. “That’s why it’s so important that public universities model the First Amendment values they are supposed to be teaching to students, and why it should disturb everyone that Miami University of Ohio and many other universities are communicating to a generation that the Constitution doesn’t matter.”
“The unnecessary obstacles students experienced at Miami University of Ohio in Hamilton sadly is all too common on campuses across the country,” said Students for Life President Kristan Hawkins. “Students peacefully trying to hold an exhibit that inspires conversation with fellow students about their love and concern for preborn infants and their mothers should be protected.”
Thomas W. Kidd, one of nearly 3,200 attorneys allied with ADF, is serving as local counsel for the Students for Life chapter in the lawsuit. Students for Life of America is the nation’s largest pro-life youth organization and currently serves more than 1,100 groups in colleges, high schools, and medical schools across the U.S.