A lawsuit was recently filed against Miami University “over alleged discrimination and infringement of First Amendment rights.” The University’s Students for Life group and Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a religious legal advocacy organization, decided to file the lawsuit in response to requests that the pro-life group make changes to a demonstration it was planning.
But what happened, exactly? Well, it all began when the Students for Life group began “organizing its fourth annual ‘Cemetery of the Innocents’ demonstration.” The demonstration “places crosses on the university’s Central Quad to represent the lives lost to abortion.” However, shortly after the group began planning for the event, Caitlin Borges, the Director of Student Activities and Orientation for the university approached the group and informed it that it “must put up informational signs across campus to notify community members of the display,” according to the lawsuit that was filed on Wednesday.
What did Borges want the displays to say, though? According to the lawsuit, she wanted the signs to say something along the lines of “The Students for Life are displaying their annual Cross Display from October 29th–November 5th. Please contact Ellie Wittman with questions.” Her intentions in making the request including her concern that the pro-life display “could cause emotional trauma for those not expecting the exhibit.”
However, Wittman, who is the president of the university’s Students for Life chapter, “feared that the signs would lessen the exhibit’s impact” and said the request would “interfere with the purpose of the Cemetery of the Innocents display.” To support her rejection of Borges’ request, Wittman pointed to the 2016 Miami University Hamilton Pride. That particular event, which is a “self-described LGBTQIA+ and ALLY organization for promoting social justice and equality for everyone along the gender and sexuality spectrum” showcased a “similar display for the Transgender Day of Remembrance,” yet Borges never “required it to place any signs identifying MUH Pride as the sponsoring organization or providing contact information,” according to the lawsuit.
According to Wittman, the display for the Transgender Day of Remembrance “could have caused some individuals to experience ‘emotional trauma’ upon seeing it, just as Defendant Borges feared would happen with the Cemetery of the Innocents display.”
The ADF backed Wittman up, and Travis Barham, ADF Legal Counsel, issued the following statement in a press release:
“No university official has the authority to censor student speech simply because of how someone might respond to it. Like all government officials, public university administrators have an obligation to respect students’ free speech rights. The First Amendment secures the freedom of all students to participate in the marketplace of ideas, and it prohibits university officials from imposing trigger warnings that restrict what some students can say to spare the feelings of others.”
So how has the university responded to the lawsuit? Well, a spokeswoman for the university, Clair Wagner, said: “the university respects its students’ right to free speech.” In a separate email she said that the “lawsuit appears to be the result of an unfortunate misunderstanding at Miami University’s Hamilton campus.” She added:
“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. 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.”
At the moment, Borges has declined to comment.