VIRGINIA — Regent University law student Adam M. Key said hehoped to elicit a few laughs when he posted a photo on his Facebook page ofuniversity president and televangelist Pat Robertson appearing to make anobscene gesture in September.
But the photo — a freeze-frame shot of Robertson scratching his facewith his middle finger during an appearance on the television show “The700 Club” — and Key’s subsequent attempt to defend the postingearned him an indefinite suspension and has sparked a debate as to how farprivate universities and colleges should go to protect student’s freedomof expression even though they are not legally required to do so.
“You’re sort of at the mercy of officials because there’sno state action,” said David Hudson, a scholar at the First AmendmentCenter. “The First Amendment doesn’t apply.”
When administrators discovered the photo in September, they demanded thatKey take it down and told him that he was in violation of a university policythat prohibits “profane or obscene expressions … which violates acceptedstandards of decency and Biblical conduct.” In response, Key sent out ane-mail over the university’s student e-mail list claiming officials usedthe policy to suppress speech that they found unfavorable.
“Essentially, any time the Regent administration disagrees withsomeone’s views, they can censor those views on the basis that it violates’accepted standards of decency,'” he said in the e-mail,quoting the university’s policy.
Key was then called in to meet with law school dean Jeffrey Brauch whothreatened him with disciplinary sanctions and demanded that he either send amessage over the student e-mail list apologizing for the photo or write a legalbrief defending both his critique and his decision to post the picture.
After Key’s brief was rejected at the beginning of October, heprepared to face a disciplinary hearing. But on Oct. 12, Key received a letterfrom Associate Dean for Student Affairs Natt Gantt informing him that he wassuspended indefinitely because other students reported feeling unsafe around himand alleged that he had brought a gun to school. Key must undergo a psychiatricevaluation and continue counseling if he is to continue classes.
Key maintains that he never brought a gun to school and believes that theschool’s latest actions stem from the photograph incident.
“It’s an attempt to discredit me because they’re sayingI’m somehow dangerous,” he said.
In a written statement to Fox News, Robertson defended theuniversity’s decision to punish Key.
“We do not feel that freedom of speech encompasses the practice ofthe deliberate manipulation of television images to transform an innocentgesture into something obscene,” he said.
Sherri Stocks, a spokeswoman for Regent University, said the university”does not unduly restrict free speech.”
“Regent School of Law believes it has a mandate to teach its studentsto act professionally, and with proper decorum,” she wrote in an e-mail tothe Student Press Law Center.
Key and others contend that although private universities and colleges arenot legally required to protect students’ freedom of expression to thesame degree public universities are, they should in the interest of theirstudents’ education.
“The whole point of educational inquiry is to allow for robust debateand even critical comments,” Hudson said.
Many private universities and colleges see protecting student expression asa selling point for prospective students, said Temple University journalismprofessor Thomas Eveslage.
“They welcome the exchange of ideas in the marketplace,” hesaid. “They’re still using this notion that (the university) is aplace to explore and try new things and share new ideas.”
Key said he is one of only a handful of “liberal Christians” onthe predominantly conservative campus and that the university fosters anenvironment that discourages contrary views.
“The few and far between people that do have contrary viewswon’t express them for fear of repercussions,” he said. “Weowe our heritage as Protestants to people who critiqued religious leaders. Weshould celebrate that, not crush it.”