TEXAS — A former student at Regent University School of Lawfiled suit Nov. 29 against the university, claiming that it violated his FirstAmendment rights when it punished him for posting an unfavorable picture ofuniversity president and televangelist Pat Robertson on the Internet.
Adam Key, who was a first-year law student at the Virginia Beach,Va.-based university, now resides in Spring, Texas, and filed his suit inthe U.S. District Court in Houston. The case might mark the first time a studenthas made a First Amendment claim based on the Higher Education Act, a federallaw that applies to all schools that receive federal funding.
“You’re not allowed to use taxpayer money to violate theConstitution,” Key said.
In September, Key posted as his Facebook profile picture a freeze-frameshot of Robertson scratching his face with his middle finger during anappearance on the television show “The 700 Club.” Key was threatened withdisciplinary sanctions and then suspended indefinitely because officials said hebrought a gun to campus.
Key maintains that he never brought a gun to campus and that Regent wasjust punishing him for the photographic incident.
As of Monday, Regent University had not been formally served with thelawsuit, said university spokeswoman Judy Baker.
“When we are served, we’re going to have our attorneys reviewit and they will help us determine what response to the lawsuit isappropriate,” she said.
The complaint alleges a breach of contract because Key said he was inducedto come to Regent based on promotional material that boasted of theschool’s defense of religious liberties. Since he termed the posting ofthe photograph religious speech, he said his right to post the photo should beprotected as a religious liberty.
“When they were recruiting me they sent me letters that talked abouttheir defense of religious liberty,”he said. “That was essentiallywhat drew me to Regents in the first place.”
A second claim asserts that Regent violated Key’s First Amendmentrights and violated a part of the Higher Education Act, which governs any schoolthat receives federal money.
A portion of the act reads, “It is the sense of Congress that nostudent … on the basis of participation in protected speech or protectedassociation”should be punished.
But Mike Hiestand, a legal consultant for the Student Press Law Center,said that because the free-speech provision is prefaced with the phrase”sense of Congress,”it is not enforceable as law.
“There’s no teeth to it,”he said. “It’sbasically just telling people this is what we’d like you to do, butwe’re not going to pass any laws to enforce it.”
Still, Key’s attorney, Randal Kallinen, insists that the preface isnot relevant and that the act goes into detail to describe what itprotects.
“I interpret it as binding and we’re going to go forward withit such as it is,”he said. “If there was no oomph in this law whywould they go into the definition of protected speech?”
Kallinen said that he has never heard of a case that uses the HigherEducation Act as a basis for a student’s First Amendment claim.
“This could be a case of first impression,”he said.
For More Information:
Regent student faces discipline for posting satirical picture of Robertson News Flash, 10/18/2007