A Maryland community college changed its policies to settle a lawsuit brought by a student who said the school prevented her from starting a conservative student group or even discussing the group on campus.
Moriah DeMartino, a 22-year-old student in her final year at the state-supported Hagerstown Community College, sued the school in February after it stopped her from opening a chapter of Turning Point USA (TPUSA). The organization’s mission “is to identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote the principles of fiscal responsibility, free markets, and limited government,” according to its website, which includes images of young people holding signs with slogans such as “Big Government Sucks.”
In her suit, DeMartino said faculty members were skeptical of her idea for a school chapter of TPUSA, then turned down her application last year, saying the organization was “duplicative” of the existing political science club.
“DeMartino showed Professor Schwartz some of TPUSA’s educational material, including pamphlets entitled ‘Capitalism Cures,’ ’10 Ways Big Government Harms You,’ ‘The Game of Loans,’ and the ‘The Healthcare Games,” the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Maryland, read. “… Professor Schwartz reviewed the pamphlets and commented that the pamphlets contained very clear political ideologies. Professor Schwartz then stated that he did not think that he would agree to forming a TPUSA club because of TPUSA’s views but did like the idea of forming both a Young Republicans and Young Democrats chapters within the Political Science Club.”
After DeMartino tried to collect signatures for a petition supporting TPUSA on campus, she said she was stopped by campus police.
“The police chief instructed Ms. DeMartino that she must immediately stop engaging in the speech activities,” her suit read. “… This action is premised on the United States Constitution and concerns the denial of Ms. DeMartino’s fundamental rights to free speech, due process, and equal protection of law.”
DeMartino’s suit, filed with the support of the conservative nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom, also pointed out that the college had sanctioned other groups whose missions appeared to overlap.
“Defendants have granted recognition to both the National Organization for Women student group and the Spectrum Club,” the suit read. “The stated purposes of both clubs include recognizing and promoting the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexual, and transgender students.”
In a settlement agreement circulated by Alliance Defending Freedom, parts of which were redacted, Hagerstown Community College agreed to adopt an “expressive activity policy,” among other changes.
“College property is primarily dedicated to academic, student life and administrative functions,” the policy said. “But it also represents the ‘marketplace of ideas.’ The College shall not interfere with the rights of Active Students and Student Organizations to the free expression of their views or impermissibly regulate their speech based on its content or viewpoint.”
DeMartino told The Washington Post that the politics behind the settlement didn’t matter.
“It’s not just about my campus, it’s about every campus,” she said. “It’s not just about left or right. It really comes down to free speech, and that every student has a right to free speech on their campus.”
In a statement, the ADF, which has helped file similar actions in the past, praised the settlement.
“Public colleges are supposed to be a place where ideas are freely shared, not subject to the approval of government officials,” ADF senior counsel Tyson Langhofer said. “The First Amendment is the only permission slip that a student needs to be able to engage in free speech, and this settlement reflects that. A college short-circuits its own purpose when it places its own restrictive speech rules above the freedoms that the First Amendment guarantees to students and all Americans.”
In an interview, Langhofer added: “Students don’t need a permit to speak on campus. The only permit they need is the First Amendment.”
Hagerstown Community College was not happy with the outcome.
“We are disappointed that the student did not follow written procedures and fully address her concerns internally, prior to obtaining legal representation,” college president Guy Altieri said in a statement. “This was never a matter involving free speech, but rather an issue related to procedures. It should be noted that the student never filed a formal request to start the club, nor did she exhaust internal appeals.”
Altieri added: “We have in the past and will continue in the future to encourage freedom of expression and the healthy debate of opposing ideas across the college community, especially among our students, without censorship or restrictions.”