Universities Under Fire

, Julia A. Seymour, Leave a comment

Two prominent Pennsylvania universities, Penn State and Temple, were sued Wednesday by the Alliance Defense Fund on behalf of PSU student Alfred Joseph (A.J.) Fluehr and Temple student Christian M. DeJohn. Both legal complaints were filed at the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.

The first lawsuit, filed on behalf of sophomore Alfred Joseph Fluehr, names Penn State University and university President Graham B. Spanier as the defendants. The complaint against PSU states that the university has an unconstitutional “vague and overbroad” speech code which violates the rights of every Penn State student, that the code is enforced by allowing students to submit anonymous statements against other students who have been “intolerant”, and that PSU also has policies regarding student organizations that cause religious groups to be discriminated against.

The second was filed against Temple on behalf of graduate student Christian M. DeJohn. It names the university, university President David Adamany, Richard H. Immerman (Chair of the graduate history department) and Gregory J. W. Urwin (a professor of history). Adamany announced in late January that he will be resigning from his position effective in June.

Among other things, the suit contends that Temple engaged in “a campaign of retribution and retaliation” leading to DeJohn’s problems attaining a Master’s degree in military and American history after he exercised his freedom of speech to criticize anti-war emails he received while serving overseas and voiced his own dissenting opinions in class with Dr. Urwin.

Tysen Kendig, manager of the news bureau at the Penn State University Relations department said that “Penn State does not have a speech code and we do not know why [some] are alleging that we do. There is no policy, principle or the like that infringes on individuals’ free speech rights. As a university we vigorously seek to protect rights of free speech.”

Kendig also said he is not aware of any instances in which Penn State has abridged the right of constitutionally protected speech.

When asked specifically about Penn State Policy AD-29: Statement on Intolerance, Kendig said that this is not a speech code, but a policy regarding acts of intolerance.

The policy located in the University Policy Manual reads:

DEFINITION: Intolerance refers to an attitude, feeling or belief in furtherance of which an individual acts to intimidate, threaten or show contempt for other individuals or groups based on characteristics such as age, ancestry, color, disability or handicap, national origin, political belief, race, religious creed, sex, sexual orientation or veteran status.

POLICY: Acts of intolerance will not be tolerated at The Pennsylvania State University. The University is committed to preventing and eliminating acts of intolerance by faculty, staff and students, and encourages anyone in the University community to report concerns and complaints about intolerance to the Affirmative Action Office or the Office of the Vice Provost for Educational Equity, and in cases involving students, reports also may be made to the Office of Judicial Affairs. . . .

EXPRESSION OF OPINION: The expression of diverse views and opinions is encouraged in the University community. Further, the First Amendment of the United States’ Constitution assures the right of free expression. In a community which recognizes the rights of its members to hold divergent views and to express those views, sometimes ideas are expressed which are contrary to University values and objectives. Nevertheless, the University cannot impose disciplinary sanctions upon such expression when it is otherwise in compliance with University regulations.

After being given a hypothetical example of a Christian student speaking about the immorality of homosexuality, Kendig was asked whether or not such a student would be subject to sanction at Penn State for an act of intolerance. His response was, “No, that is a viewpoint and is protected by freedom of speech.”

This is the email response received from Temple University’s Director of Communication, Ray Betzner:

Q: Has the university retained legal counsel in response to the lawsuit filed yesterday?

A: No.

Q: Was this lawsuit expected by the university?

A: No.

Q: Does President Adamany or professors Immerman and Urwin have any comments regarding the suit?

A: No.

Q: Has the university’s dept. of history been unfairly denying Christian DeJohn the right to graduate by delaying his thesis evaluation?

A: No.

Q: Has Temple violated the constitutional rights of Christian M. DeJohn?

A: No.

The two lawsuits come at a crucial juncture for Pennsylvania universities which have been under scrutiny by a special committee of the state House of Representatives for their policies on academic freedom.

The House Select Committee on Academic Freedom has held hearings at Temple University, University of Pittsburgh and at the state capital to determine the state of academic freedom and intellectual diversity of state-funded colleges and universities in Pennsylvania. The committee was formed after Representative Gibson C. Armstrong (R-Lancaster) met Jennie Mae Brown, a student at the York campus of Penn State, who told him of her physics professor’s rants against President Bush.

The two lawsuits filed on Wednesday are the first legal actions taken by the Alliance Defense Fund’s new Center for Academic Freedom that was started in late January. According to their Web site, the ADF is a legal alliance that fights to protect religious liberty, the sanctity of human life and traditional values. They were formed in 1993.

Julia A. Seymour is a staff writer for Accuracy in Academia.