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Beth Sheeran is an absolutely delightful woman I've met on a couple of occasions while I volunteered time in the Student Government office at Spokane Falls Community College.  She is apparently preparing to be a nurse.  She is also a leader in the student group Spokane Falls Christian Fellowship, which applied for space in the display boards of the student union building to put up a "Pro-Life" display for the benefit of students.

Now, I'm of the opinion, as I said before, that almost everyone is pro-life and anti-abortion.  Nobody really thinks abortion is a good idea.  I'm guessing that there is not a lot of agreement between Beth and I on the issue of abortion, except that we should work to reduce the number of abortions performed throughout the U.S. and the world.  I don't want to put words in her mouth because I haven't actually spoken to her about abortion (or much else, to be fair), but I'd guess she would advocate for greater legal restrictions on access to the abortion procedure.  I would not.

Beth and SFCF were denied their right, as a student group or student, to equal access to the display boards.  The administration, which really means Heather McKenzie, who rules student government as her own fiefdom, claimed that posting SFCF's display without an opposing view would constitute bias and discrimination.  They even put it on SFCF to come up with the opposing view. 

Subsequently, Heather McKenzie and the VP of Student Services ambushed the group at their planning meeting to threaten that there would be adverse action if SFCF continued with some form of their display.  They handed out Anti-Bias policy pamphlets, focusing on a "Stop the Hate" theme. 

With no other real recourse, Beth filed a lawsuit (*.pdf) against the school's trustees, president, vice-president of student services, and Heather McKenzie for violating her and other students' free speech rights.

This is the part where, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" comes in.  In looking at the exhibit, I think it conjures a lot of great questions about the relationships between poverty, race, and abortion.  I might question the validity of some of the statistics and the bias of some data sources.  Even if I didn't find some food for thought in the display, there is no reason in all of fairness for such a display to be denied, especially in an academic environment.

To Beth Sheeran, I say, Go Girl!  Except that I think the lawyers from Alliance Defense Fund and the lawyers for ACLU might get in each others' way, I'd advocate for the ACLU's involvement on her behalf.  Maybe they'd be willing to file an amicus brief.  Hmmmm....

I don't think the administration of the school intended the Anti-Bias policy to be used in this manner.  I think Heather McKenzie felt threatened when Beth and the SFCF didn't back down and abused the policy, using it to bash the rights of the students and attempting to intimidate them.

Unfortunately, the obvious and most basic (and correct) response to McKenzie's threats is to point out the controversial exhibits and speakers sponsored by student groups and the student government.  This means pointing to sex-positive, LGBT-friendly, and generally progressive events and displays which have not been required by McKenzie to get an opposing viewpoint.  What McKenzie doesn't seem to understand is that you can't contain speech based on content.  Student events and displays are going to be controversial to draw an audience.  It's called free speech--and students have an especially strong right to it, especially when we disagree with the content.

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jreilly4261

May 2009

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