Oklahoma State University representatives have been sued in federal court over claims it violated a student group’s First Amendment rights.
Cowboys for Life, an OSU student organization, filed suit Friday in U.S. District Court, which alleges officials prohibited them from having a pro-life display showing pictures of aborted fetuses in high traffic areas of campus. The group also aimed to hand out literature about abortion issues to students and engage in conversations with passersby, according to the document.
“Oklahoma State University claims the unchecked right to regulate the location of student expression and assembly on campus,” the suit says. “In so doing, it fails to protect students against content and viewpoint discrimination.”
Attorneys for the group ask for the invalidation of OSU’s policies regarding facilities use and literature distribution by student groups. Brently Olsson, who represents the plaintiffs, said OSU has applied content-based regulation against CFL.
“A state actor can’t decode which speech they favor and which they don’t favor,” he said. “They also exercised retaliation and basically censorship for speech that was uttered. That is patently un-American.”
CFL also asks for more than $10,000 in damages, but Olsson said the number is a formality.
“How do you value the violation of your constitutional rights?” he said. “We want accountability for those who apply the rules and reform in how policies are written and applied.”
Travis Barham, another attorney in the case and a member of Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal ministry promoting the free exercise of faith, said the case represents a “textbook violation” of the First Amendment.
“The essence of this case is that universities should promote free speech, not try to quarantine it,” he said. “The focus of this lawsuit is to ensure that all OSU students have the right to speak freely on campus without having their message stifled or silenced or relegated to a remote area of campus.”
Barham said SGA members were included in the lawsuit because of the resolution they drafted against CFL.
“The leaders decided they would pass a resolution for the students to be investigated and brought up on disciplinary charges,” he said. “That constitutes retaliation. All of them are adults and we want to hold them accountable for their actions.”
Barham also said Campus Life Director Kent Sampson made up restrictions after looking at what CFL and Justice For All, another pro-life group, were going to say in the display. The lawsuit alleges OSU violated CFL’s First Amendment rights in previous years, which “heightened concern” for OSU students’ freedoms.
“The fact that it’s a repeated violation does show that this wasn’t a one-time accident,” he said. “This is a consistent response whenever pro-life groups want to bring in a display to highlight the issue of abortion.”
CFL says Sampson did not allow the group to post signs or displays near the Student Union or on the library lawns because the material was graphic and could be offensive to students.
OSU policies do not prohibit or restrict the display of graphic images on campus or give guidelines to determine which images are graphic.
Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said Tuesday that there seem to be constitutional weaknesses in OSU’s policies.
“It’s definitely not permissible under the First Amendment to ban all distribution of literature on campus without applying for permission and filing a copy of the literature with the university,” he said. “We only have one side of the story, but if Cowboys for Life are able to prove these facts are true, then there are several possible First Amendment violations.”
LoMonte said courts are skeptical about restraining speech in public areas of college campuses, especially when the speech addresses social or political issues.
“If Cowboys for Life was not behaving any differently from other groups—if they were not obstructing traffic or physically accosting pedestrians or otherwise causing a disturbance—then they have a right to deliver their message without government interference,” he said.
Regents chairman Andy Lester declined to comment on the allegations, saying he had not yet seen a copy of the claims. OSU Director of Communications Gary Shutt said the university is reviewing the lawsuit.
“As stated in OSU policy, the freedom of expression and assembly are the hallmark of an academic community,” he said. “OSU offers students and others fair and equal opportunity and discussion.”
Olsson said the suit was filed Friday evening and the university’s legal counsel has not been served as of Tuesday afternoon.