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Pro-life Student Group Sues Chemeketa Community College for Allegedly Violating Free Speech Laws

— May 19, 2020

Chemeketa Community College is at the center of a lawsuit alleging it violated the constitutional rights of a pro-life student group.

Earlier this year, Chemeketa Community College was sued by a pro-life student group over allegations that the school violated the group’s constitutional rights to free speech when it allowed group members to only “distribute pamphlets, flyers and other materials in small speech zones.” The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Eugene and names Emma Howell and Marcos Sanchez as plaintiffs. They’re the co-presidents of Chemeketa Students for Life and are being represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative nonprofit based in Arizona. Jessica Howard, the president of the college, other top administrators, and the college board are all named as defendants.

Image of the Free Speech Flag
Free Speech Flag; image courtesy of John Marcotte via Wikimedia Commons,

What happened, though? According to the suit, the college “prevented the student group from effectively communicating its message.” The complaint targeted the school’s policy of requiring “students wanting to provide literature, display signs, or engage others in the college’s outdoor areas to receive permission two weeks in advance.” According to the policy, the activities are only allowed to take place in two approved speech zones “that make up less than 1.5% of the college’s 100-acre campus.” The complaint states, “These policies and practices disable and chill protected student expression.”

Because of the school’s policies, the pro-life student group was “unable to engage with students in response to breaking news or legislation,” according to the suit. For example, when the group hosted a debate back in February about physician-assisted suicide, Sanchez wasn’t able to hand out fliers promoting the event. Similarly, when the U.S. Senate was considering two abortion-related bills, “the group was similarly unable to speak with students, distribute literature, or display a poster showing fetal pain.”  

In response to the allegations, Marie Hulett, the college’s executive director for institutional advancement, issued an email saying:

“Chemeketa endeavors to uphold the constitutional rights and civil liberties of all student groups equally. We are looking into the claims and will have more information available as appropriate.”

At the moment, the lawsuit is requesting a court order to prevent Chemeketa Community College from enforcing its policies that limit free speech. Specifically, the lawsuit wants the Oregon District Court to deem the school’s speech zone policies unconstitutional and prevent “anyone from enforcing the two-week permission or speech zone restrictions.” Additionally, it is seeking compensation to help cover attorney fees and other compensation for the students “in an amount to be determined by the evidence.”

Currently, the school’s free speech policy applies to individuals or groups including, but not limited to, those who represent religious organizations, groups desiring petition signatures, political candidates and their representatives and groups representing political issues,” according to its website.


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