Cameron Univ. official: University policy trumps First Amendment

Censored student files suit, officials downplay significance of constitutionally protected freedoms
Thursday, May 15, 2014

Attorney sound bites:  David Hacker  |  Kevin Theriot

OKLAHOMA CITY — Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday on behalf of a student prohibited by Cameron University officials from distributing religious fliers. When the student asked about the restrictions on his free speech, a top university official said that the amendments to the U.S. Constitution are simply “foundations” that “you can’t live on” and that university policy supersedes his First Amendment freedoms.

“Public universities are supposed to be the marketplace of ideas,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel David Hacker. “The First Amendment protects freedom of speech for all students, regardless of their religious beliefs. They should not have to pre-register their speech with college officials or comply with vague speech codes to exercise their constitutionally protected freedoms.”

The university allows various groups to freely express their views on campus. Christian student Daniel Harper disagrees with the views of one of those groups, the World Mission Society, and decided in February to distribute a flier to other students that provided his perspective on the group’s beliefs. After a student complained, university officials told Harper he was not allowed to distribute his fliers because other students found the literature “offensive,” because he did not get prior approval, and because the officials decided that his religious views were “discriminatory,” “slanderous,” and “libelous,” even though the fliers merely expressed his point of view.

Cameron University Equal Opportunity Official Thomas Russell applied the university’s speech code to censor Harper’s constitutionally protected speech. Russell told Harper, “I like those amendments to the Constitution. They are foundations to democracy. But that’s all they are--foundations. You can’t live on them. You’ll freeze to death in winter and burn up in summer.” In a second conversation, Russell reiterated his point: “All those federal laws are the foundations. Once you get the foundation built to live in the house, you need framework and rooms, and that is the policies and procedures [of the University].”

“Public university officials don’t get to pick and choose which theological viewpoints can be expressed on campus,” added ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot. “We hope that Cameron University will revise its policy so that all students can exercise their constitutionally protected freedoms.”

After an investigation, the officials found Harper guilty of violating the university’s Expressive Activity Policy and Equal Opportunity Policy, which prohibit students from engaging in “offensive” and “discriminatory” speech, require students to join a student organization to hand out literature on campus, and then get prior permission to distribute the literature.

The lawsuit, Harper v. McArthur, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma challenges the university’s policies and practices under the U.S. Constitution and the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act. Brently Olsson, one of more than 2,300 attorneys allied with ADF, is serving as local counsel.
Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
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