Dayton Religious Freedom Case Settled
The Ohio Attorney General’s Office has accepted a settlement worked out in First Amendment case brought against Sinclair Community College last summer.
Campus police at the Dayton school told participants at rally for the First Amendment rights to religious freedom and free expression of religion that they had to put down all their protest signs, an action the sponsors, attendees, and speakers said was a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech.
The terms of the settlement, announced yesterday, are that the college adopt a new policy recognizing the First Amendment rights of students and groups holding activities on campus, and agree to pay the organization’s court costs of more than $9,000.
“This settlement should send a clear message to colleges in Ohio and across the nation that unconstitutional speech codes aren’t worth defending,” said Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
FIRE and the Thomas More Society, a public interest law firm, filed the case last summer on behalf of Sinclair students Ruth Deddens (the rally captain) and Ethel Borel-Donohue, and one of the rally speakers, pro-life activist Bryan Kemper.
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The June 8th rally was one of more than 160 held simultaneously around the country, and the only one in which participants were not allowed to display signs.
“It was odd for all of us who where there,” Fr. Kyle Schnippel, Vocations Director for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and one of the speakers, said at the time. “I’ve never heard of anything like this.”
Participants said they were told that a student homosexual activist group objected to the signs, and that a student code of conduct required they be put away to prevent disruptive behavior.
“The campus police’s actions were supposedly based on a school policy barring disruptive behavior, even though censoring the content of signs or brochures was not mentioned in the policy,” said a representative of the Thomas More Society in the settlement announcement.
“It is fundamental First Amendment law that the content of free speech, no matter how ‘offensive’ it may be to certain onlookers, deserves the very highest degree of legal protection, despite the fact that some of those hearing or seeing the speakers’ message may be ‘disruptive’ and seek to impose their ‘hecklers’ veto’ against the speakers.”
Deddens, the rally captain, says she is delighted with the settlement, and with the impressive legal work that went into it.
“One very special note about our case is that this legal action was a collaborative effort, with lawyers from three different states coming together to effect this victory for liberty,” she says. “Christopher Finney of Cincinnati is our lead attorney and headed up our Ohio legal team with help from Curt Hartman and Bradley Gibson; Peter Breen and Tom Brejcha lead the Thomas More Society located in Chicago; and Robert Shibley lead the FIRE team out of Philadelphia.
“All those at the SCC Stand Up For Religious Freedom Rally that day who were so offended by their free speech rights being trampled were very well represented by all of these talented and generous legal heroes.”
Matt Yonke at the national Stand Up for Religious Freedom site wrote, “Today we see a huge victory for the protection of our First Amendment rights as a direct outgrowth of last year’s Stand Up for Religious Freedom rally effort.
“I remember clearly when Eric Scheidler received a phone call from Bryan Kemper, one of the speakers at the rally, during our own Rally in Chicago. Bryan and Rally Captain Ruth Deddens were shocked that police were asking them to put down signage during a First Amendment Rally!”
Deddens says the settlement is more than a victory for her group, it’s a victory for all people protesting the HHS mandate. “I believe that our Rally experience at Sinclair was just a little preview of how bad it will be when the HHS Mandate is fully implemented,” she says. “Americans will finally begin to realize that the HHS Mandate is all about trampling our rights in many more ways than one! The Bishops have stated that they cannot and will not comply. Hopefully, the Supreme Court will dump the whole entire mandate mess.”
Plaintiff Bryan Kemper, who leads the prolife group Stand True and is youth outreach coordinator for Priests for Life, will speak Thursday at 1:30 and 3:30 at Sinclair College as part of a speaker series sponsored by the Traditional Values club, which also sponsored the Stand Up rally.
Photo courtesy Stand Up for Religious Freedom Dayton. Click here for a gallery of rally photos. For our coverage of actions at the rally, click here. For activist/speaker Bryan Kemper’s account of the day, click here. For our story about the lawsuit filing, click here. Read our Religious Liberty resources page here, and click here to see all our previous stories and guest posts on religious liberty issues.
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