Sunday, March 29, 2015

Religious Opinion Shot Down in Yet Another University

This example of establishment issues in public schools comes to us from May of last year, so the case is a little bit dated, but I still feel it poses some controversy worth talking about.  Daniel Harper is a student at Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma who was disciplined by the university for distributing fliers that were religious in nature.  In an article by WorldNet Daily (usually just referred to as WND) describing the situation, Harper's fliers consisted of expressions of his opinion stating that a group called World Mission Society "was a pyramid scheme 'fronting as a religious organization' and distorted the Bibles teachings."  Another student of Cameron University--who remains unnamed--was offended by the viewpoint that Harper's fliers presented, and made a complaint to the university.  After hearing of this complaint, the university then began its disciplinary procedures on Harper and his actions.

What is interesting is that Harper was actually found in violation of the Equal Opportunity Policy, which is outlined in the university's Employee Handbook.  There have been obvious complaints about this, since Harper is a student and not an employee.  In addition to this rationale, the university officials also told Harper that he could not distribute the fliers because "other students found them offensive and he didn’t receive prior approval."

However, the most surprising rationale that Harper received from the university came from an Equal Opportunity Officer named Thomas R. Russell, who told Harper that the policies of the university are above "those amendments to the Constitution," and that the rights outlined by the First Amendment are merely "foundations," and that the university's policies serve to build off of them, but not necessarily to abide by them.

Harper filed suit against Cameron University with the help of the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).  Senior Legal Counsel for ADF, David Hacker, argued that public universities are supposed to be an open place where students are free to express their ideas, and that the "First Amendment protects freedom of speech for all students, regardless of their religious beliefs."  The ADF has also pointed out that the university allows various other groups and individuals to express their views on campus.  Another ADF Senior Counsel member, Kevin Theriot, also made the statement that the university officials "don’t get to pick and choose which theological viewpoints can be expressed on campus."  Both ADF and others who have expressed complaints over this case hope that Cameron University will revise its Expressive Activity Policy and its Equal Opportunity Policy to truly parallel the amendments of the Constitution.

This case sounds similar to one of the cases we have discussed in class, Rosenberger v. University of Virginia.  Student Ronald W. Rosenberger's case was somewhat different in that he was asking the university to provide the funding for the publication "Wide Awake," which contained a religious viewpoint.  As we know, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Rosenberger, claiming that the university's denial of funding constituted viewpoint discrimination, which violated the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution.  The situation is the same here: Cameron University is using viewpoint discrimination against Daniel Harper's fliers, which is unconstitutional.

I would definitely say that Harper's free exercise rights were violated here.  I was also appalled at the fact that Russell blatantly stated that the university's policies went above the amendments of the Constitution.  That is obviously not right.  So what do you guys think? Should Daniel Harper be allowed to distribute his fliers even though they may be offensive? Or should Cameron University's policies be upheld and kept as they are?


Nina N. said...

I would certainly agree with Abby. One of the main reasons why is because this is a state-funded school. What the student said may have offended some, but it was certainly within the realm of their right to their own religious beliefs. This was not hate speech or anything threatening violence, so it should not have been restricted as it was.

Mackenzie Y said...

I find the comments by the Equal Opportunity Officer to be very concerning about the policies of the university being above the amendments to the Constitution since the Constitution is and has been the Supreme Law of the Land since it was written. Though Harper’s statements may have been in conflict with what the majority of university staff believe or against another group, he still has the right to express his freedom of speech. I think that the author’s viewpoint is very valid and supported by the decision in Rosenberger v. University of Virginia.

Ana M. said...

I agree with the author. Public Institutions cannot prevent someone from exercising their First Amendment unless it is hate speech. This case reminds me of Cantwell v. Connecticut were Justice Roberts stated that as long as there was no clear and present danger, the Cantwell form of speech was allowed in public areas. It is clear to me that this students’ First Amendment was violated.

Ben K. said...

I perfectly agree that Harper’s statements should not have been censored in this manner as it is a clear violation of the Free Exercise and Free Speech aspects of the 1st Amendment. Since the school had opened up a limited public forum through allowing other viewpoints to be expressed on campus the school couldn't discriminate against Harper. Even through his statements may have been offensive to others; it is still protected by free exercise and free speech. This is clearly viewpoint discrimination and thus unconstitutional to censor Harper. The reference to the Rosenberger case made by the author clearly demonstrated the parallels between the two cases. As such, this case should be understood under the same light.

robert bryson said...

I would agree with the author that Harper's free exercise of religion rights have been violated. As we saw in the case, Cantwell v. Connecticut, Cantwell and his two sons who were playing anti-Catholic messages and were charged for breaking Connecticut's breach of peace ordinance. The Court found that this violated Cantwell's free exercise of religion. Similarly, as a student and not an employee of the university, Harper should have every right to post fliers around campus about his own religious views.

Tommy S said...

I to agree with everyone else's statements that Harper's Free Exercise and Freedom of Speech were violated. Additionally, while it is like Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, it seems to be an even more obvious case. The school was not even providing funding to Harper.