Lawsuit Claims Montclair State University Policies Limit Free Speech

Sheila Noonan | January 21, 2020 | Education
A national organization is representing a student group, alleging it was improperly refused the right to demonstrate on campus in favor of gun rights
Credit: NJTV News
A student organization alleges its members were refused the right to peacefully demonstrate on campus in favor of gun rights.

Montclair State University is the latest campus to become embroiled in a free-speech fight, including over how it funds its student groups.

With the backing of a national legal rights group, a Montclair State conservative student organization filed a federal lawsuit last week alleging its members were refused last fall the right to peacefully demonstrate on campus in favor of gun rights.

The lawsuit alleges that on Sept. 10, on a sidewalk near University Hall on campus, Montclair State student Mena Botros and two other students were peacefully expressing their view that gun-free zones only benefit criminals. They held signs, and to portray “pretend criminals,” were dressed in orange jumpsuits. The lawsuit maintains a campus police officer “forced them to stop” and told them that to speak on campus, they needed permission two weeks in advance, with the dean’s office assigning the time and location.

The students belong to the Montclair chapter of Young Americans for Liberty, which describes itself as “the largest and fastest-growing libertarian and conservative youth organization in the country.”

The Alliance Defending Freedom, a national advocacy group, which represents the plaintiffs, maintains Montclair’s requirements “unconstitutionally suppress[es] all speech and … allows the university to deny or delay a student’s request for permission for any reason.”

‘Supposed to be a marketplace of ideas’

“A public university is supposed to be a marketplace of ideas, but that marketplace can’t function if officials impose burdensome restraints on speech or if they can selectively enforce those restraints against disfavored groups,” said Alliance legal counsel Michael Ross.

Based in Arizona, ADF describes itself as “an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith” and claims to have secured nearly 400 victories for free speech on campus.

College campuses have increasingly become hotbeds of debate, protest and even legal action over First Amendment rights. Earlier this month, Iowa State University was subject of a lawsuit due to its policies prohibiting students from sending emails that support a political candidate or campaign, as well as “chalking” (a popular form of expression on campus sidewalks) about political candidates.

Montclair State University president Susan A. Cole issued a written statement in response to the Young Americans for Liberty suit, noting that as of last Thursday, the university had not been served with the complaint. “Montclair State University is absolutely and unequivocally committed to freedom of speech,” she wrote, explaining the school’s  policy and procedures related to demonstrations and assemblies are based on a balance between two principles: free assembly and speech that foster discourse and permit the exchange of ideas, and the right to engage without disruption in all regular university activities.

“The University has adopted appropriate procedures to assure that it functions in accordance with those principles, and we have no reason to think that we have taken any action in violation of our principles or policies,” the statement concludes.

Funding issue

The lawsuit also challenges how the Student Government Association (SGA), a nonprofit that operates independently from the university, allocates funding to approximately 60 student organizations, this year from about $1.5 million collected through mandatory student fees. According to the SGA website, organizations are categorized into one of four classes — I, II, III and IV — and receive funding based on their assigned class. Class IV organizations cannot request funding from the SGA but can be considered for an SGA dollar-to-dollar match of fundraising or member contributions, according to the lawsuit, but whether to do so is up to the SGA.

Class IV organizations such as Young Americans for Liberty are described on the SGA website as “typically a group of people with an idea for a club and prospective members, nothing solidified.” The plaintiffs claim the SGA has “no objective guidelines or criteria that require it to assess student organizations on viewpoint- and content-neutral terms.”

In a written statement, the SGA said its policies and procedures for student organizations are “viewpoint neutral” and “encourage the formation and growth of student organizations.”

Additionally, the lawsuit addresses Montclair’s Bias Education Response Taskforce, which according to its webpage, works to “provide a well-coordinated and comprehensive response to incidents of intolerance and bias with respect to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, religion and national origin.” The plaintiffs claim the taskforce’s “express purpose is to suppress speech that may make others uncomfortable.”

The lawsuit requests a jury trial, and the defendants named, in addition to Cole and the SGA, include the trustees of Montclair State University and other senior university officials and campus police officers. Ross said ADF is in the process of serving the lawsuit on defendants, after which the university will have 21 days to answer.