Maryland college changes course after shutting down student who wanted to start conservative club

Hagerstown Community College officials denied student’s application, told her she can’t speak about club in open, outdoor area of campus
Thursday, May 12, 2016

Attorney sound bites:  Tyson Langhofer | David Hacker

BALTIMORE – A Maryland college has agreed to settle a federal lawsuit Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys filed in February after the college prohibited a student from forming a conservative club on campus. Officials at Hagerstown Community College then also stopped the student, Moriah DeMartino, from asking other students in an open, outdoor area of campus to sign a petition in favor of starting the club.

DeMartino filed the lawsuit DeMartino v. Cushwa with the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland in October of last year but later requested ADF attorneys to represent her in the suit. The lawsuit claimed the college unconstitutionally discriminated against DeMartino based on her viewpoint in denying the formation of her club and in requiring her to obtain permission from the school before engaging in protected free speech. As part of the settlement, the college has revised its policies so that officials will no longer be able to discriminate against students and student groups based upon their viewpoint.

“Public colleges are supposed to be a place where ideas are freely shared, not subject to the approval of government officials,” said ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer. “The First Amendment is the only permission slip that a student needs to be able to engage in free speech, and this settlement reflects that. A college short-circuits its own purpose when it places its own restrictive speech rules above the freedoms that the First Amendment guarantees to students and all Americans.”

In August 2015, DeMartino submitted a request to establish a campus chapter of Turning Point USA at HCC, which denied the request because a college official said the mission of TPUSA “duplicates” the mission of the already existing Political Science Club. As the lawsuit argued, however, TPUSA’s values of fiscal responsibility, free markets, and limited government are not only distinctly different from the Political Science Club, the college has also already approved clubs with seemingly “duplicate” missions, including two clubs that promote LGBT issues and two clubs that prepare students for technology careers.

Shortly after denying the request, DeMartino decided that she wanted to discuss the denial with other HCC students in an outdoor area of campus and request that they sign a petition supporting the formation of the TPUSA student group. When she did so the following month, the college’s chief of police approached her and a representative of TPUSA who was with her and ordered them to stop speaking to other students because they did not first obtain permission from the dean of student affairs as the college’s solicitation policy required at that time.

The lawsuit argued that the college’s policies unconstitutionally chilled protected student speech and disabled the ability of students to speak freely on campus about current events. The settlement ensures that students will be permitted to engage in free speech regardless of their viewpoint and will not be discriminated against based on viewpoint when forming clubs.

“The cornerstone of higher education is the ability of students to participate in the ‘marketplace of ideas’ on campus,” said ADF Senior Counsel David Hacker. “That marketplace depends on free, vigorous, and often spontaneous debate carried out through the spoken and written word as well as within student organizations that associate together because of particular beliefs or viewpoints. We hope other colleges will follow the lead of Hagerstown Community College and work to remedy policies that suppress the constitutionally protected freedoms of students.”

Steven L. Tiedemann, one of more than 3,000 private attorneys allied with ADF, served as local counsel in the case.
 
  • Pronunciation guide: Langhofer (LANG’-hoff-uhr)
 
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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