Two Student Clubs File Federal Lawsuits Alleging Violations of First Amendment Rights

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December 14, 2017

Two student clubs filed federal lawsuits this week against their respective universities, both alleging violations of First Amendment rights.

Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC) charged the University of Iowa (UI) with illegally deregistering it last month, after the student group refused administrators' direction to revise its religious mission statement, according to the complaint filed Monday.

UI administrators cancelled the official club status of BLinC, founded in 2014 at UI's Tippie College of Business, when a member claimed he had been denied a leadership role in 2016 because he was gay.

BLinC rejected that accusation in Monday's suit, saying the student was rebuffed "because he expressly stated that he rejected BLinC's beliefs and would not follow them."

BLinC said it was instructed by UI to amend its Statement of Faith, which mandates belief in "the supremacy of the Bible," and submit an "acceptable plan" for selecting its executives. When the club refused, it lost its official status, with the university saying it violated UI's Human Rights Policy and the Iowa Civil Rights Act.

"The University's attempt to tell BLinC how to define its faith and select its leaders constitutes religious animus and discrimination and violates clearly established federal and state law," according to the suit.

An unregistered student group cannot use university facilities, receive UI funding, or participate in on-campus recruitment fairs.

In addition to UI, the suit specifically names Dean of Student Lyn Redington, assistant dean Thomas R. Baker, and William R. Nelson, the executive director of the Iowa Memorial Union.

In a statement to a local paper, UI affirmed the right of its faculty, staff, and students, to practice the religion of their choice and said it does not tolerate discrimination. However, it maintained that "when a voluntary student organization chooses to become a registered student organization, it must adhere to the mission of the university, the UI's policies and procedures, and all local, state, and federal laws."

Eric Baxter of the he Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the D.C.-based nonprofit legal institute representing BLinC, called UI's actions "premeditated religious discrimination, plain and simple."

"A state school cannot demand a change to students' faith any more than the U.S. president could demand a change to the Bible," said Baxter.

Elsewhere, the conservative student club Turning Point USA filed a suit Wednesday against Arkansas State University (ASU) to fight the school's "speech zones" policy.

The suit, filed by Alliance Defending Freedom on behalf of student Ashlyn Hoggard, charged that ASU has severely limiting freedom of expression policies by setting up such zones. Hoggard was instructed by an administrator to stop talking to students when she tried to recruit peers for her new chapter of Turning Point, according to the suit. Hoggard was told she was in violation of the two-decade old policy, which leaves about 1 percent of the campus open on weekdays, between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. for pamphleting, demonstrations, and speeches, according to the suit.

Hoggard applied for a table, but was denied because only registered clubs can reserve space for recruitment, the lawsuit explained. She set up a table the next day, before she was told to leave by an administrator.

The university Freedom of Expression Policy states, "Because the mission of Arkansas State University is education, the campus of Arkansas State University is not a public forum open for assembly and expression of free speech as are the public streets, sidewalks and parks."

ASU said in a statement that it "is committed to the First Amendment with policies and procedures that are designed to further that right and not restrict."

The U.S. Justice Department has weighed in on the constitutionality of speech zones, filing briefs earlier this year in support of three such cases brought by students in opposition to such policies.

The Colorado, Missouri, Arizona, Virginia, Kentucky, and Utah state legislatures have approved bills banning zones at public universities, and similar bills have been proposed in Texas, California, Louisiana, Michigan, and New York.

Earlier this month, a libertarian group filed a suit against the University of California, Berkeley, alleging political discrimination.

Published under: First Amendment