In mid May, Sinclair Community College student Ethel Borel-Donohue submitted an application to hold a Stand Up Rally on the Dayton, Ohio, campus. The June 8 event was part of a nationwide effort to show opposition to the contraceptive mandate announced last year as part of the 2010 healthcare reform legislation. The Sinclair rally was one of 160 scheduled to be held on the same day.
On May 24, school officials granted permission for the rally, and Borel-Donohue and Ruth Deddens began booking speakers and sending out invitations. The women, both members of the Sinclair Traditional Values Club, planned to hand out signs to rally attendees and encouraged supporters to bring their own homemade placards to display. Deddens made about 100 signs herself, planning to give them to students who didn't bring their own.
When the day of the rally arrived, supporters brought signs that read "Religious Freedom for All Americans" and "Individual Freedom Comes from God, not the State." Across the plaza where the rally would be held, organizers stretched a long banner that read, "Stand Up for Religious Freedom, Stop President Obama's HHS Mandate."
But before the first speaker made his way to the microphone, 10 school police officers arrived and demanded protestors put down their signs and roll up the banner. School policy forbids the use of signs during rallies because they can be disruptive, officers told organizers.
Last week, Borel-Donohue and Deddens, along with one of the event's scheduled speakers, filed suit against the school over its Campus Access Policy. Prohibitions against displaying signs, and restrictions on handing out flyers and organizing protest events violates students' constitutional rights, said Peter Breen, executive director and legal counsel for the Thomas More Society, which represents the plaintiffs.
"Schools are meant for the free expression of ideas, but Sinclair has taken the stance that its students must check their free speech rights at the door," Breen said. "Threatening students with arrest for holding signs at a permitted, peaceful rally is a clear, egregious violation of the First Amendment."
Under Sinclair's Campus Access Policy, students must request permission to hold a rally at least 21 days in advance of the planned event. And they are not permitted to carry or display signs during any form of protest. The school's Student Code of Conduct also forbids students from handing out any literature on campus, unless they first register with school officials.
The Sinclair suit is just the latest attempt by free speech advocates to strike down restrictive speech codes on college campuses. Earlier this year, South Mountain Community College, in Phoenix, Ariz., abandoned sections of its policy that required a two-week notice for events and required organizers to have a $1 million insurance policy. Last year, southern California's Cypress College also revised a similar policy after pro-life group Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust filed suit.
In April, the Alliance Defending Freedom, formerly known as the Alliance Defense Fund, launched a campaign targeting restrictive speech policies at 160 schools. Last week, the University of California, Los Angeles agreed to change its policy on posted literature at the group's request.
The plaintiffs in the Sinclair case have asked the court to strike down unconstitutional clauses in the Campus Access Policy and Student Code of Conduct and cover their legal expenses.