An Ohio college has decided to comply with the First Amendment rights of its students after a federal lawsuit brought by the Thomas More Society pointed out the hypocrisy of stifling free speech in an institution that claims to welcome the free exchange of ideas.
A now-settled lawsuit was filed after the Traditional Values student group attending a June 2012 “Stand Up for Religious Freedom Rally” at the Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, was told by police that their hand-held signs would have to be placed face-down on the ground.
WND reported at the time that Bryan Kemper, an invited speaker, witnessed the police impeding the free-speech rights of students.
“As the rally was starting, the campus police informed us that all the signs and banners people were holding must be put on the ground after a complaint from a homosexual advocacy group leader,” Kemper told WND. “The police walked around the crowd telling people to put their signs down, that they could not hold them in their hands.”
Bonnie Borel, president of the Traditional Values group, told WND, “The campus police apparently have total discretion to deny the First Amendment rights of people on campus.”
The rallies were being held in an effort to draw attention to the mandates of Obamacare requiring coverage of birth control and abortion-causing drugs.
As WND reported, the “Stand Up For Religious Freedom” rallies are a project of the Pro-Life Action League, united with 70 other organizations.
The groups are demanding Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius withdraw mandates requiring nearly all private health insurance plans to cover the prescription contraceptive drugs and devices, surgical sterilizations and abortion-inducing drugs, such as Plan B.
Police apparently reacted to complaints and determined the signs were disruptive, even though the college policy doesn’t address the signs.
According to the Thomas More Society report: “The lawsuit alleged that police stated the practice of disallowing signs and brochures was supposedly intended to comply with a school policy barring ‘disruptive behavior,’ even though censoring the content of signs or brochures was nowhere addressed in the actual wording of the policy cited.
“It is fundamental First Amendment law that the content of free speech, no matter how ‘offensive’ it may be to certain onlookers, deserves the very highest degree of legal protection, despite the fact that some of those hearing or seeing the speakers’ message may be ‘disruptive’ and seek to impose their ‘hecklers’ veto’ against the speakers.”
In the settlement agreement, Sinclair Community College agreed to pay attorney’s fees of nearly $10,000 and revise its campus access policy.
“We are pleased that Sinclair Community College decided to join with its students to promote free speech instead of silencing or trying to control the content of their speech,” said Peter Breen, executive director and legal counsel of the Thomas More Society.
“At its core, the university campus provides a place for students to debate and grapple with ideas, including ideas that may not be popular in certain quarters,” he said.
“Freedom of expression is an absolutely fundamental value in a democratic, self-governing society and indispensable to the educational process.
“Here,” he said, “The police – as is all too common – were the sole folks within hearing or sight of the pro-life messages displayed on the ‘offensive’ signs who sought to enforce their own ‘hecklers’ veto.’
“In every such case, the Thomas More Society will hasten to support the right of pro-life speakers to have their ‘say,’ loud and clear, in America’s public forums,” Breen said.
The settlement also forces Sinclair Community College to allow for broader First Amendment Rights of the students and visitors on campus.
After learning of the campus incident, Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life said, “We praise the Lord for the rallies for religious freedom that occurred today, but something smells fishy in Dayton.
“Forcing people to put their signs down is certainly not a default activity of law enforcement in a country of free speech,” he continued. “This incident deserves thorough investigation, and we who believe in freedom of speech should press with all our strength to defend it.”
With the announcement of the settlement, Bryan Kemper returned to the campus for two pro-life speaking engagements.
Several law firms collaborate on the case. Lead attorneys Chris Finney and Brad Gibson of the law firm of Finney, Stagnaro, Saba & Patterson Co., L.P.A., based in Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio, and Curt C. Hartman, of Amelia, Ohio, joined with Peter Breen of the Thomas More Society.
WND previously reported that in a video taken at the event, the cameraman asks the police if the demand to put down the signs applies to the banner for the event itself. He is told by a uniformed officer that the main banner, identifying the event, is fine.
Within seconds of the exchange, another uniformed police officer, later in the video identified as Nick Toscani, can be seen reaching out and grabbing the video camera. He can be heard saying, “Turn it off.”
Editor’s Note: The video below does contain an obscenity.
College’s history of disliking signs
Research into Sinclair Community College reveals the incident wasn’t the first time campus police have demanded protest signs be put down.
The campus newspaper addressed the unwritten sign policy in a March 2012 article, referring to a meeting in February held by the Traditional Values club that featured a guest speaking about former homosexuals.
Two members of the Brite Signals Alliance held up protest signs in the back of the room, one of which said “You can’t pray away the gay.” The other sign said “Love Gay, Cure Bacon.”
The protesters were asked by police to put down the signs, and they did.