Anti-Abortion Student Group Fights Rules for On-Campus Displays

CINCINNATI (CN) – An anti-abortion student organization at Miami University of Ohio filed a federal lawsuit against the school, claiming it tried to make the group post warning signs around its exhibit on campus.

Students for Life at Miami University of Ohio – Hamilton had successfully installed a “cemetery of the innocents” display in the center of the university’s regional campus for the past three years, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Cincinnati federal court by lead attorney Travis Barham with the Alliance Defending Freedom.

That changed this fall, the group says, when the school’s Office of Student Activities determined that Students for Life would not be allowed to install the exhibit of several hundred small crosses representing lives lost to abortion unless it also posted signs that warned students and community members about the presence of the exhibit and identified the exhibit’s sponsors.

The student organization and its members refused to erect the warning signs out of fear they would mischaracterize the group’s anti-abortion message as dangerous or harmful, and declined to install the exhibit to avoid disciplinary action.

Instead, they opted to sue university officials for alleged violations of their right to free speech, due process and equal protection.

Students for Life is joined in the complaint by four students who are members of the group – President Ellen Whitman, Vice President Margaret Bruns, Treasurer Morgan Smith and Secretary Chloe Olberding.

Named as defendants are trustees of Miami University of Ohio; University President Gregory P. Crawford; Cathy Bishop-Clark, interim associate provost and dean; Peter Haverkos, senior assistant dean for student and academic success; Mary Bausano, assistant dean for student success; and Caitlin Borges, director of student activities and orientation.

According to the complaint, Borges sent an email to Whitman stating that several people had contacted her to raise concerns about the exhibit.  Borges allegedly went on to say that the display “is quite polarizing and causes a lot of unrest on campus.”

Students for Life disputes Borges’ assertion and maintains that the only significant unrest caused by the display occurred in 2015 when a women’s studies professor at the university encouraged her students to uproot the entire exhibit. The student group says it promptly reinstalled the exhibit without further incident.

Students for Life also acknowledges that its exhibit has prompted opposing displays from students expressing pro-abortion rights viewpoints, but the group points out that Miami University has not imposed similar restrictions or requirements on the students who oppose its anti-abortion message.

“Defendants took these actions because of the content and viewpoint of plaintiff’s expression, because they believed that plaintiff’s expression would prompt complaints, and because they wanted to pacify those who might be offended by this display,” the lawsuit states. “In taking these actions, they implemented the challenged university policies, violated plaintiff’s constitutional rights and inflicted irreparable injury upon them.”

Students for Life’s lawsuit against Miami University comes as the Ohio House of Representatives is considering a bill known as the Ohio Campus Free Speech Act, which was introduced by two Republican state representatives in August.

If passed, the law would prohibit universities from taking action that would limit the expression of any member of the campus community, eliminate “free speech zones,” prohibit universities from disinviting speakers based on potential opposition, and allow those aggrieved by violations of the Act to bring a cause of action against state institutions.

Along with attorney Barham, the anti-abortion student group is represented by David Cortman and M. Casey Mattox, two other out-of-state attorneys with the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian nonprofit that, according to its website, advocates for “religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated the Alliance Defending Freedom as a hate group for its alleged opposition to LGBT rights and support of the recriminalization of homosexuality in the United States.

The plaintiffs are also represented by Thomas Kidd Jr. of the Cincinnati-based law firm Kidd & Urling LLC.

Claire Wagner, director of university news and communications for Miami University, said in an emailed statement that the lawsuit “appears to be the result of an unfortunate misunderstanding at Miami University’s Hamilton campus.”

“All Miami University students and student organizations have First Amendment rights to free speech. As a result, the University does not approve or disapprove of any student organization’s display based on content or subject matter. Miami University does not require trigger warnings,” she said.

Wagner added, “Our values dictate that we protect the rights of our students and student organizations to hold and express disparate beliefs and we encourage the discussion and learning that comes from sharing our differences. If mistakes were made, they will be addressed.”

The Alliance Defending Freedom did not respond Thursday to a  phone call seeking comment on the lawsuit.

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