Sinclair Community College has ordered a student not to distribute pamphlets highlighting breast cancer’s link to abortion and oral contraceptives, drawing a challenge that cites, among other things, the idea of free speech.
The confrontation began during Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October of 2010 when Ethel Borel-Donohue, a paralegal studies student, shared two sets of roughly 15 pamphlets after a class.
The pamphlets, published by a Catholic organization, asserted overwhelming evidence that abortion and oral contraceptives substantially increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer.
But the chairman of the department, Michael Brigner, censored the material from all class areas after a complaint from a fellow student who had had an abortion. And in doing so, he revealed Sinclair’s broad constraints on free speech, which go well beyond the classroom and this particular incident.
From Sinclair’s policy on social and commercial activity:
“Literature may not be distributed in working areas, including: classrooms, laboratories, lecture halls, gymnasiums, libraries, offices, work stations, conference rooms, and corridors leading directly thereto which are an integral part of the work areas.”
“So you can distribute literature, but you just can’t do it anywhere,” jibed Borel-Donohue. “I’ve been to several universities, but Sinclair, it seems, is really totalitarian in their control.”
Ironically, Borel-Donohue says lecturers use classes to promote events that she finds offensive, such as those of “gay” and lesbian clubs, but she never thought to silence them.
Borel-Donohue eventually contacted the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education for help, since she no longer felt comfortable in her department and was concerned about prejudices against her.
FIRE, a nonprofit educational foundation, swiftly rebuked Sinclair’s policy and in two letters has called on the university to bring its policy into compliance with the First Amendment.
“The right to distribute literature about controversial topics is one of Americans’ most hallowed rights,” FIRE president Greg Lukianoff said. “If someone’s claim to be offended by speech were all it took to overrule the First Amendment, we would all be reduced to silence… the Constitution does not recognize a ‘right not to be offended.’”
But Sinclair has not backed down and the university’s lawyer, Lauren Ross, happens to also be Ohio’s assistant attorney general. She does not believe Sinclair’s policy contradicts the First Amendment, and the college released this statement.
“Sinclair embraces the principles of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the right of free speech … Citizens are free to peacefully share their thoughts and distribute literature on campus in common areas such as atriums, eating areas, and much of the Physical Activities Center and the outdoor plazas.”
FIRE’s vice president, Adam Kissel, is unimpressed, and he sent a new letter on March 23 – copying it to Ohio’s governor and attorney general – but the college has yet to respond.
He notes that the distribution was not during class time, and he cites a 1979 federal district court case that struck down Ohio State University’s similarly broad restrictions on literature distribution. The presiding judge explained that beyond “material disruption” or “substantial disorder,” the First Amendment protects distribution of literature on campus. That includes when students complain about the content of the message distributed.
While Borel-Donohue remains unsure of her likely punishment, she has considered defying the ban, so as to bring more attention to Sinclair’s grip on free speech. While legal action may also be necessary, Kissel remains hopeful the college won’t persist.