Pro-life student group sues Oklahoma State University over First Amendment rights


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In a federal lawsuit filed late last week, a pro-life student organization at Oklahoma State University claims the school violated its First Amendment rights.

The student organization, Cowboys for Life, alleges that school officials prohibited the group’s display of pictures of aborted fetuses in highly-visible areas of campus, reports The Daily O’Collegian, Oklahoma State’s student newspaper. That’s a problem, the suit claims, because the taxpayer-funded university is a state actor.

Cowboys for Life members had also planned to distribute literature and discuss their anti-abortion views with passing students.

“Oklahoma State University claims the unchecked right to regulate the location of student expression and assembly on campus,” the lawsuit alleges. “In so doing, it fails to protect students against content and viewpoint discrimination.”

An attorney on the side of the plaintiffs, Travis Barham, describes the case as a “textbook violation” of the First Amendment.

Cowboys for Life seeks $10,000 in damages — which Olsson calls largely a token — and, more importantly, “reform in how policies are written and applied.”

The lawsuit also names members of the university’s student government association as defendants. Allegedly, the student government drafted a resolution critical of Cowboys for Life.

“The leaders decided they would pass a resolution for the students to be investigated and brought up on disciplinary charges,” Barham told The O’Collegian. “That constitutes retaliation.”

The suit also alleges that university official Kent Sampson invented restrictions to stymie Cowboys for Life once he saw the images that would be displayed.

Sampson would not allow the group to display anything near the Student Union or on the library lawns because, he allegedly said at the time, the graphic content could offend students. However, says the suit, Oklahoma State’s policies don’t prohibit graphic images nor do they provide guidelines for anyone to establish what is graphic.

Still another allegation made by the plaintiffs is that this instance wasn’t Oklahoma State’s first attempt to violate the First Amendment rights of the pro-life organization.

“The fact that it’s a repeated violation does show that this wasn’t a one-time accident,” Barham told The O’Collegian. “This is a consistent response whenever pro-life groups want to bring in a display to highlight the issue of abortion.”

Frank LoMonte of the Student Press Law Center, an advocacy organization for students’ First Amendment rights, told The O’Collegian that Oklahoma State’s speech policies might not pass First Amendment muster.

“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,” LoMonte said. “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.”

LoMonte hastened to add that the lawsuit by Cowboys for Life presents only one side of the story.

As for the other side of the story, Andy Lester, who chairs Oklahoma State’s Board of Regents, said he preferred not to answer The O’Collegian’s questions because he had not seen the lawsuit. Comment was apparently left to Gary Shutt, the school’s communications director.

“As stated in OSU policy, the freedom of expression and assembly are the hallmark of an academic community,” Shutt said. “OSU offers students and others fair and equal opportunity and discussion.”

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Eric Owens