Beth Sheeran was a student at Spokane Falls Community College in the Community Colleges of Spokane district. She was also actively involved in Spokane Falls Christian Fellowship, a student organization at SFCC. In January 2009, Ms. Sheeran and the Spokane Falls Christian Fellowship wanted to hold a pro-life event at the College on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. The event consisted of passing out flyers and putting up a few posters in the student center display case, which was available for use by all student organizations. However, upon applying for permission to hold the event, SFCC refused to allow it. SFCC administrators told Ms. Sheeran and Spokane Falls Christian Fellowship that their pro-life display was “offensive” and “discriminatory” and said that they were required to also present the opposite point of view during the event. Even after the anniversary date passed, when Ms. Sheeran and Spokane Falls Christian Fellowship persisted in requesting permission to hold the event, SFCC told them it was “biased” and that if they held the event they could be expelled from SFCC for “discriminating” or “offending” someone. SFCC had several speech restrictive policies that not only required students to obtain prior approval to distribute flyers, but also required approval from their student organization advisor and thirty days notice to host a speaker on campus and a requirement that opposing points of view be presented during all events. SFCC also maintained a speech code that prohibited any “discriminatory” or “offensive” speech and a program entitled “Stop the Hate” that encouraged students to report “bias incidents” committed by their peers to a Bias Incident Response Team. Attorneys with the ADF Center for Academic Freedom filed a lawsuit on behalf of Ms. Sheeran in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington on March 9, 2009.
The district court preliminarily enjoined several of the policies at a hearing on April 29, 2009. On September 24, 2009, the Court entered an Agreed Order representing the settlement agreement in the case. SFCC brought all of its policies into compliance with the Constitution by amended or repealing its speech code, converted the “Stop the Hate” program into an optional educational program and removed the overbroad definitions and reporting/punishment mechanisms, paid Ms. Sheeran $1,000 in damages, and paid her attorneys’ fees of $45,000.
Ms. Sheeran’s case is an example of the fact that public universities and colleges cannot maintain vague and overly broad speech policies that allow administrators to punish subjectively “offensive” speech. Nor may colleges give administrators a prior restraint on student speech or compel students to espouse opposing points of view during a student organization event.
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