Pro-Life Cougars win settlement on all points against University of Houston
Wednesday, June 11, 2003
HOUSTON – A University of Houston student group, the Pro-Life Cougars, announced a victorious settlement today in a free speech lawsuit against the university. The settlement is a big win for the student organization, but it could prove to be an even bigger victory for student groups seeking to regain free speech rights on other campuses.
The case involved a graphic pro-life exhibit banned from display on Butler Plaza at the University of Houston.
Benjamin Bull, chief counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund and the lead attorney in Pro-Life Cougars v. University of Houston, explained that the settlement requires a new policy, the return of the display to campus, and the payment of attorneys’ fees to the plaintiffs. The Alliance Defense Fund is a national legal organization based in Scottsdale, Arizona, serving people of faith.
"The university is now required to open Butler Plaza to organized student expression, including razor-sharp images of abortion that challenge conventional thinking on the issue of taking human life," Bull said. "The First Amendment permits no less." "Universities are not black holes where only orthodox views are allowed to shine. Students are entitled to learn the truth about all difficult issues, including abortion," Bull said.
The Pro-Life Cougars brought the case initially because university administrators discriminated against the group's exhibit at Butler Plaza. The group sought permission to put up a display in public space on Butler Plaza previously used by pro-abortion groups like the National Organization of Women and Planned Parenthood. The university prohibited the exhibit. The Pro-Life Cougars were forced to choose between suing and accepting this unfair treatment.
"These students had the guts to litigate for their rights. They won everything they asked for and then some. This should be a message to other public universities that restrict pro-life speech on campuses," said Bull.
Today's settlement changes key policies at the University of Houston. The university is required to have a new policy in place by June 30, 2003. Butler Plaza will be open to stationary student exhibits, including the graphic pro-life exhibit.
Under the previous policy all such displays were banned from Butler Plaza, which the university describes as the heart of campus.
The university also agrees to give the student group a waiver from the general size restrictions applicable to others if the Pro-Life Cougars present a letter from an engineer that their large display is stable and safe. The group already has such a letter. The group can also have multiple simultaneous exhibits on campus, which it intends to do.
Under the previous policy the university banned anonymous leafleting, which had a chilling effect on abortion leafleting. If members of the Pro-Life Cougars wanted to distribute leaflets, they were forced to put their names or organization’s name on the leaflet, facing possible retaliation from hostile students. Now all students, not just the Pro-Life Cougars, can engage in leafleting -- including graphic images of actual abortions – without facing this onerous requirement.
The previous policy also banned movable signs, such as sandwich boards. Under the settlement all students, including the Pro-Life Cougars, will be permitted to walk around all parts of campus with movable signs, such as sandwich boards.
The settlement makes it clear that speech cannot be prohibited when administrators or faculty disagree with it, which was the earlier situation. All discretionary grounds for prohibiting student speech on campus are eliminated.
Under the settlement the University of Houston will pay plaintiffs $93,000 in attorneys’ fees. The settlement ends the litigation and the plaintiffs have agreed to dismiss their remaining claims.