SPLC Urges Appeals Court to Vacate Ruling Applying Hazelwood to College Student Speech

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASEContact: Frank D. LoMonte, executive director703.807.1904 / director@splc.org

In a brief filed Monday, the Student Press Law Center asks aCincinnati-based appeals court to reconsider a January decision that greatlyreduces the level of First Amendment protection for students at publiccolleges.

The SPLC is asking the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals torehear the case of an Eastern Michigan University student, Julea Ward, whoclaims she was kicked out of her chosen academic program because of herChristian religious beliefs.

In a Jan. 27, 2012 ruling, a three-judge panel of the SixthCircuit decided that – although Ward was a graduate student – she was entitledonly to the minimal First Amendment protection that the Supreme Court createdfor high school students in its 1988 ruling, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. The ruling “will imperilthe fundamental right of college students to be free from retaliation for whatthey say and write,” the SPLC says in its brief.

“While the panel’s ruling ultimately went in favor of JuleaWard – allowing her claims to get to trial – her case will be a setback for allcollege students unless the Circuit rectifies this mistake,” said attorneyFrank D. LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. “TheSupreme Court gave schools the Hazelwoodlevel of discretion to protect the delicate ears of vulnerable children, and Hazelwood simply has no place ingraduate school, period.”

Appearing as a friend-of-the-court in two combined cases (Ward v. Wilbanks and Ward v. Polite), the SPLC is asking all16 active judges on the Sixth Circuit to vacate the panel’s order and hearWard’s case en banc. The brief arguesthat the panel greatly expanded Hazelwood– a case about student speech in high school newspapers that are produced aspart of curricular lab classes – to a much different context: A graduatestudent’s one-on-one conversation with a professor. (Ward told her counselingprofessor that, because of her religious opposition to homosexuality, she wasunsuited to counsel a gay student and would refer the client to a moresupportive counselor. The university responded by expelling Ward from thecounseling program.)

“This Court has repeatedly and unequivocally found Hazelwood inapplicable if the studentspeaker is not using a school-subsidized forum to communicate a message thataudience members could reasonably mistake for an officially sanctioned schoolmessage. Moreover, it not employed Hazelwoodwhen the school has sought to mete out discipline rather than regulate orrestrict the speech,” the SPLC argues in the brief.

The brief was prepared and filed with the assistance ofvolunteer legal counsel Susan Grogan Faller and Monica L. Dias fromCincinnati-based Frost Brown Todd, LLP, one of the nation’s premier firmsrepresenting media clients. Frost Brown Todd also was counsel to the SPLC inthe 2001 case of Kincaid v. Gibson,in which the same circuit court decided that Hazelwood did not apply to the editors of a Kentucky collegeyearbook. The inconsistency between the Sixth Circuit’s en banc ruling in Kincaidand the panel’s ruling in Ward is oneof the main reasons the SPLC is urging the court to rehear the case.

“Having the region’s premier media-law firm put itsexpertise behind this brief, we believe, will emphasize to the Circuit just howhigh the stakes are,” LoMonte said. “We are consistently overwhelmed by thegenerosity of Frost Brown Todd attorneys in giving of their time and talentwhen the rights of young people are threatened.”

Since 1974, theStudent Press Law Center has been devoted to educating high school and collegejournalists about the rights and responsibilities embodied in the FirstAmendment, and supporting the student news media in covering important issuesfree from censorship. The Centerprovides free information and educational materials for student journalists andtheir teachers on a wide variety of legal topics on its website atwww.splc.org.