Students' lawsuit targets policies against 'intolerance'

GEORGIA — Whentheir affirmative action bake sale was shut down, College Republicans at theGeorgia Institute of Technology bristled.

When university officialsordered parts of their protest signs for ”The Vagina Monologues” bepainted over with white paint, they fumed.

Now, two members of thestudent organization are suing the public university in Atlanta, alleging theschool’s Community Policies repeatedly restricted their free speech andcontinue to infringe on their rights.

The university’sCommunity Guide for 2005-06 identifies several ”Acts of Intolerance”

that are considered ”unacceptable,” including ”any attempt toinjure, harm, malign or harass a person because of race, religious belief,color, sexual/affectional orientation.”

The policy also saysthat ”denigrating written/verbal communication … directed toward anindividual because of their characteristics or beliefs” is an ”Actof Intolerance.”

The university has indicated with thesepolicies that ”people who have the ‘acceptable’ viewpointshould have more rights to speak than those with the ‘unacceptable’

viewpoint, which is fundamentally contrary to the First Amendment,” saidDavid French, an Alliance Defense Fund attorney representing students Orit Sklarand Ruth Malhotra.

Attorneys for the students filed the lawsuitagainst Georgia Tech in a federal court on March 16.

The AllianceDefense Fund is a non-profit organization based in Scottsdale, Ariz., thatadvocates for religious liberty and expression.

Amelia Gambino,spokeswoman for Georgia Tech, said the university first received a copy of thelawsuit last week, and that she was unable to comment on it.

But she said to her knowledge, no student has everchallenged the university’s policy against “Acts of Intolerance.”

The lawsuitasserts that under the university’s current policies, the religious viewsexpressed by the two students — both described in the lawsuit as”religiously observant” — could be considered offensive andpunishable.

Sklar did not respond to interview requests, and Malhotrareferred questions to representatives at the Alliance DefenseFund.

The students approached the Alliance Defense Fund in January,French said, after the university censored portions of signs protesting ”The Vagina Monologues” and shut down a ”diversity bakesale” in fall 2003.

According to an article in the Technique, the student newspaperat Georgia Tech, the diversity bake sale charged purchasers different pricesbased on their gender or ethnicity, so that ”the sale mimicked collegesadmission policies.”

”Because of the Institute’sonerous speech codes … [Sklar and Malhotra] cannot engage in the full range ofdialogue on matters of political, cultural and religious importance,” thelawsuit said.

The lawsuit also challenges the university’srefusal to fund student religious groups with student activities fees, a

”surprisingly common” policy at public universities around thecountry, French said.

Gambino, the spokeswoman, said that claim isinaccurate. The only time religious organizations are refused school funding iswhen the money would be used for fundraising events, she said.

Butthe most interesting portion of the students’ complaint, French said, isits questioning of Safe Space, avoluntary education program offered by the university.

The statedmission of Safe Space is to ”dispel negative stereotypes and presentfactually accurate information about [gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender]people.”

One portion of the program’s training manualanswers the question, ”Is homosexuality immoral?” Another portion ofthe manual summarizes religious views on homosexuality from 16 faith traditions,including Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam.

Gambino saidabout 100 people participate in the Safe Space program annually, and that mostparticipants work in the university’s housingdepartment.

Stephanie Ray, director of diversity programs at GeorgiaTech, did not return a call for comment.

The Safe Space programamounts to ”religious instruction on sexuality issues,” thatindicates a preference for more tolerant religious viewpoints, Frenchsaid.

The program teaches university employees, and therefore Georgiastate employees, that the university would ”rather you be a Buddhist thana Baptist” when it comes to attitudes about homosexuality, Frenchsaid.

No such preference exists, Gambino said.

”Georgia tech has longtime commitment to freedom ofspeech,” she said. ”We do take civil rights of students veryseriously. The university has a history of tolerance and open dialogue on a widevariety of subjects.”

French said the university’s attorneys have not issued a formal response to thelawsuit.

”Speech codes lend themselves to arbitrary enforcement against minority viewpoints,” he said.