Student group sues Boise State over limits on campus protests

jsowell@idahostatesman.comJune 30, 2014 

1018 local bsuart

Boise State students on the campus' quad.

STATESMAN FILE — Joe Jaszewski

A Boise State University student group opposed to abortion has filed suit, claiming university-imposed restrictions violate the group’s free speech rights.

The group seeks a declaration that the university violated its First Amendment rights and an injunction against enforcing the restrictions.

Abolitionists4Life says it was asked to place warning signs around two exhibits the group hosted on campus in April and May.

One of the exhibits included signs with images from abortions. The other featured an autopsy photo of a woman who died having an abortion. A flap that kept the photo from view had a warning on it, but university officials said separate signs were needed to warn students walking by.

Boise State officials are reviewing the complaint.

The group also objects to what it says is uneven enforcement of the university’s free speech rules. Groups and individuals are free to discuss issues, hand out literature or hold signs outdoors as long as they don’t block sidewalks or impede traffic. However, if groups host an event at one of 11 reserved locations designated as “public areas” in BSU policy, and “speech zones” in the lawsuit, they are prohibited from carrying out any activities simultaneously at any other campus location, according to the lawsuit.

Abolitionists4Life said other campus groups staged events and still handed out items outside of their designated zones, including a Planned Parenthood event where representatives handed out free condoms. It also said that fraternities and sororities and off-campus groups hand out literature without a speech zone reservation or outside their reserved space.

“Abolitionists4Life desires to engage in peaceful expressive activities on campus — including oral communication, literature distribution, and the display of signs — in areas outside the designated speech zones, and without warning signs, but has not done so for fear of punishment,” Cascade attorney Matthew Williams wrote in the 34-page complaint, filed Friday in federal court.

Boise State “encourages and respects the constitutionally protected free speech of students, faculty, staff and visitors to campus,” university spokesman Greg Hahn said Monday. “University policies reflect numerous court opinions on ‘time, place and manner’ guidelines and other First Amendment considerations.”

The school’s policy on open spaces is meant to broaden expression of views that don’t conflict with normal campus use, the right of others and the limitations of lawful conduct, Hahn said.

The lawsuit names school president Bob Kustra; Lisa Harris, vice president for student affairs; Christian Wuthrich, dean of students; Charlie Varland, senior associate director of the Student Involvement and Leadership Center; and Ashlie Baty, student organizations coordinator.

"Universities are a place where controversial issues are brought up every day and we were simply allowing our campus to see the controversy of abortion for what it really is," said Lisa Atkins, president of BSU Abolitionists4Life. "Just because an issue is controversial doesn't mean we shouldn't be able to talk about it and allow others to understand the issue for themselves."

NATIONAL BACKING

The lawsuit was brought by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a group founded by leaders from the religious right including the Rev. James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Don Wildmon of the American Family Association, the Rev. D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries and Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ.

David Hacker, Alliance senior legal counsel, would not say how the organization joined forces with the Boise State group, citing attorney-client privilege. But he said groups often approach the Alliance for help.

On its website, the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based group says it defends religious freedom, protects the sanctity of life, preserves marriage and family and protects America from radical, anti-Christian groups.

Abolitionists4Life is one of more than 200 recognized BSU student organizations.

Such groups are allowed to reserve spots on the campus’ public areas for free, according to copies of BSU policies submitted with the lawsuit. Reservations must be submitted at least 72 hours ahead of time.

The plaintiffs say the BSU open spaces policy authorizes school officials to “examine the content or viewpoint of expression and censor that expression based on the hypothetical and subjective reactions of listeners or viewers.”

They also say the policy lacks guidelines limiting the discretion of the administrator enforcing the policy, the vice president for student affairs.

THE STUDENTS' EXPERIENCE

Baty approved Abolitionists4Life’s reservation for the April 28 and 29 demonstration where the abortion photos were shown. According to the lawsuit, Baty suggested warning signs should be erected but did not require them.

On the second day, Baty told organizers she did not see any warning signs and because the event involved “controversial issues, specifically graphic pictures,” warning signs need to be placed around the display.

Nicole Pantera, a university attorney, informed group member Lisa Atkins that two of the signs were on sidewalks not part of the speech zone and had to be moved, according to the court document. A campus security officer also asked her to move the signs.

At the May 6-7 event, the group reluctantly complied with the request for warning signs. Because of the signs, foot traffic past the display was low, but group members did not distribute literature outside the reserved speech zone space because of fears of punishment from the university, according to the court complaint.

John Sowell: 377-6423, Twitter: @IDS_Sowell. Statesman reporter Bill Roberts and the Associated Press contributed.

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