Ward v. Polite

667 F.3d 727 (6th Cir. 2012)

Julea Ward was a graduate student at Eastern Michigan University and was enrolled in the school counseling program. She joined a program where she would counsel undergraduate students and was assigned a student who was having issues with his homosexuality. Because of her religious objections to homosexuality, she requested that she be assigned another student. The administration expelled her from the program, stating that she violated counseling ethics that say a counselor must be able to provide assistance to everyone regardless of moral beliefs. Ward sued, stating that her First Amendment protections of religion and free speech were violated.

The SPLC, with the help of ARN attorneys Douglas R. Dennis, Monica L. Dias, and Susan Grogan Faller of Frost Brown Todd LLC, filed a brief in favor of Ward, arguing that the trial court’s decision represented an unreasonable expansion of Hazelwood. The brief argued that the  Hazelwood standard was designed for a very strict set of circumstances involving government property, impressionable speakers, and a risk of confusion with government-endorsed speech. Ward did not use school property, but simply made a moral objection to what the faculty was asking her to do. If a student is unable to criticize a faculty member, the student has no avenue to voice legitimate concerns. Finally, she directly expressed her concerns to a board which is supposed to reasonably listen to students. If a student is expelled for these kind of actions, no student would voice any concerns.

A district court found in favor of the university, but the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, holding that a jury could find that Ward was ejected from the program “because of hostility toward her speech and faith, not due to a policy against referrals.” The court also acknowledged that Hazelwood applies in a university setting, but the difference in maturity between a high school and university setting means that educators have less discretion at the university level on what speech to control. In other words, a school cannot use the excuse of enforcing a curriculum to discriminate against a student’s religious views.