Judge tosses Georgia counseling student's First Amendment lawsuit

GEORGIA — A federal district court ruled Friday that AugustaState University officials did not violate the First Amendment when they ordereda graduate student to complete remedial training in response to her statementsabout homosexuality.

Jennifer Keeton’s case is significant because it is among the first to confronthow much constitutional protection a college student has when opposing courserequirements on religious grounds.

Keeton, who was enrolled in ASU’s Counselor Education Program, sued theuniversity in July 2010 after faculty members told her she couldn’t completethe degree program if she did not complete a remediation plan, which includedattending diversity workshops, reading articles about counseling GLBTQ (Gay,Lesbian, Bisexual, Transsexual, Queer/Questioning) students and submittingmonthly writing assignments detailing what she learned.

Keeton was vocal about her beliefs inside and outside the classroom, andsaid she would not “condone the propriety of homosexual relations or ahomosexual identity in a counseling situation,” according to the judge’sopinion.

The faculty was concerned Keeton’s strong beliefs could interfere with herability to become an effective practitioner, as they conflicted with theprofessional ethical standards set forth by the American Counseling Associationand the American School Counselor Association.

Though Keeton originally agreed to the plan, she later withdrew her consentvia email, saying, “I really want to stay in the program, but I don’t want tohave to attend all the events about what I think is not moral behavior, andthen write reflections on them that don’t meet your standards because I haven’tchanged my views or beliefs… My biblical views won’t change.”

With the help of Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal organization, Keetonfiled suit seeking a court order allowing her to stay in the program withoutcompleting remediation, along with a declaration that her rights were violatedand money damages. Keeton alleged the remediation plan violated her rightsunder the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

The court refused to issue a preliminary injunction, a decision affirmed bythe 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in December. The court ruled Keeton wasunlikely to prevail in her lawsuit. As a result, Keeton was dismissed from theprogram.

The appellate court held the counseling program to be a school-sponsored,nonpublic forum that is part of ASU’s curriculum. Thus, the court reasoned,students in the program are entitled only to the Hazelwood level of First Amendment protection – that is,administrators can regulate speech for any legitimate educational reason.

When the case returned to the district court, the defendants – a handful ofprofessors as well as the university’s board of regents – filed a motion todismiss.

On Friday, the court threw out Keeton’s lawsuit, ruling that Keeton wasaware of the conduct standards set by the counselor program and that she failedto prove those standards suppressed her free speech.

“The remediation plan imposed on Keeton pursuant to those policies placedlimits on her speech and burdened her religious beliefs, but, as theallegations show, the plan was motivated by a legitimate pedagogical interest incultivating a professional demeanor and concern that she might proveunreceptive to certain issues and openly judge her clients,” the opinionstates. “The allegations show, in sum, that while Keeton was motivated by herparticular religious beliefs, defendants were not.”

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, said thejudge’s ruling goes beyond the Eleventh Circuit’s prior holding in the area ofcompelled speech, or required speech that conflicts with someone’s personalbeliefs.

Judge J. Randal Hall concluded that Keeton was not being unlawfullycompelled to affirm homosexual behavior because she would be required to do soonly in the context of private meetings with clients – not in publicstatements. Goldstein took issue with that analysis.

“The constitutional prohibitions against compelled speech extends tofreedom of conscience,” Goldstein said. “It doesn’t matter if they require herto say it in an empty or full room.”

Goldstein said the district judge’s ruling gives broader authority to theschool than the Eleventh Circuit’s reasoning.

He said the ruling, along with similar cases in Michigan and Minnesota, raises new constitutional questionsabout the rights of students in clinical training programs.

“It’s the attempt to impose a restriction on speech that would beunconstitutional to impose on a high school student,” he said. “You can’tpunish a high school student for their views on homosexuality, whatever thoseviews are.”

AllianceDefense Fund Attorney Jeff Schafer did not return requests for comment. It isunclear whether the organization will appeal to the Eleventh Circuit again.

Representatives of ASU were also unresponsive.

By Sydni Dunn, SPLC staff writer