A dispute over a student’s attempt to express his opinion about religion on campus is now in court after a university executive insisted the school’s rules are above the Bill of Rights.
The Alliance Defending Freedom has filed a First Amendment lawsuit against Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma, over its discipline of student Daniel Harper in February for distributing religious fliers.
Harper says he was told by Thomas R. Russell, the equal opportunity officer at Cameron, that the university policies are above “those amendments to the Constitution” and that he had to abide by university policy regardless of the First Amendment.
Russell allegedly told Harper: “I like those amendments to the Constitution. They are foundations to democracy. But that’s all they are – foundations.”
Russell further insisted: “You can’t live on them. You’ll freeze to death in the winter and burn up in the summer.”
ADF Senior Legal Counsel David Hacker argued public universities are supposed to be the marketplace of ideas.
“The First Amendment protects freedom of speech for all students, regardless of their religious beliefs,” he said. “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 complaint explains Harper was found guilty by the school of violating the Equal Opportunity Policy in its Employee Handbook, even though Harper is a student, not an employee.
ADF explained that the university allows various groups to freely express their views on campus.
Harper’s handout expressed his belief that a group called World Mission Society was a pyramid scheme “fronting as a religious organization” and distorted the Bibles teachings.
After a student complained, ADF said, university officials told Harper he was not allowed to distribute his fliers because other students found them offensive and he didn’t receive prior approval. ADF said school officials concluded “his religious views were ‘discriminatory,’ ‘slanderous,’ and ‘libelous,’ even though the flyers merely expressed his point of view.”
Russell also said, according to the legal action, that “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 school],” the administrator said.
ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot said public university officials “don’t get to pick and choose which theological viewpoints can be expressed on campus.”
“We hope that Cameron University will revise its policy so that all students can exercise their constitutionally protected freedoms,” he said.
School officials, in response to a WND request for comment, declined.
In the flier, Harper warned students that the World Mission Society had “cult characteristics.” It’s members, he said, try to strike up “instant friendships” with students and invite them to their Bible studies where they espouse “new teachings” and “newly revealed prophecy.”
“They say they have the ‘truth,’ which can only be found through their group. They call any critical information against the group ‘slander,’ ‘lies’ or ‘the enemy trying to keep us from sharing the ‘truth,’” states Harper’s flier.
The complaints asks the court to declare the school’s “Expressive Activity Policy and Equal Opportunity Policy” in violation of the Constitution and to issue an injunction preventing enforcement of the policies.
It also asks that the “letter of findings” be removed from the student’s records and “compensatory and nominal damages” be paid.
Cited as controlling legal statements are the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act, the 14th Amendment and the First Amendment. Multiple university officials are named as defendants.
The complaint says the “cornerstone of higher education is the ability of students to participate in the ‘marketplace of ideas’ on campus.”
“That marketplace depends on free and vigorous debate between students – debate that is spontaneous, ubiquitous, and often anonymous – and is carried out through spoken word, flyers, signs, and displays,” the complaint states.
“Instead of encouraging free discourse and debate on campus, the university enforces a speech code and punishes students then they offer a viewpoint that someone else finds offensive or discriminatory.”
The university is accused in the document of trying to “pacify” others by shutting down Harper’s rights.
“Defendants’ policies and actions have deprived and will continue to deprive plaintiff of his paramount rights and guarantees under the United States Constitution,” the complaint says.