Regent student faces discipline for posting satirical picture of Robertson

Conflict highlights power of private universities

VIRGINIA -- Regent University law student Adam M. Key said he hoped to elicit a few laughs when he posted a photo on his Facebook page of university president and televangelist Pat Robertson appearing to make an obscene gesture in September.

But the photo -- a freeze-frame shot of Robertson scratching his face with his middle finger during an appearance on the television show "The 700 Club" -- and Key's subsequent attempt to defend the posting earned him an indefinite suspension and has sparked a debate as to how far private universities and colleges should go to protect student's freedom of expression even though they are not legally required to do so.

"You're sort of at the mercy of officials because there's no state action," said David Hudson, a scholar at the First Amendment Center. "The First Amendment doesn't apply."

When administrators discovered the photo in September, they demanded that Key take it down and told him that he was in violation of a university policy that prohibits "profane or obscene expressions ... which violates accepted standards of decency and Biblical conduct." In response, Key sent out an e-mail over the university's student e-mail list claiming officials used the policy to suppress speech that they found unfavorable.

"Essentially, any time the Regent administration disagrees with someone's views, they can censor those views on the basis that it violates 'accepted standards of decency,'" he said in the e-mail, quoting the university's policy.

Key was then called in to meet with law school dean Jeffrey Brauch who threatened him with disciplinary sanctions and demanded that he either send a message over the student e-mail list apologizing for the photo or write a legal brief defending both his critique and his decision to post the picture.

After Key's brief was rejected at the beginning of October, he prepared to face a disciplinary hearing. But on Oct. 12, Key received a letter from Associate Dean for Student Affairs Natt Gantt informing him that he was suspended indefinitely because other students reported feeling unsafe around him and alleged that he had brought a gun to school. Key must undergo a psychiatric evaluation and continue counseling if he is to continue classes.

Key maintains that he never brought a gun to school and believes that the school's latest actions stem from the photograph incident.

"It's an attempt to discredit me because they're saying I'm somehow dangerous," he said.

In a written statement to Fox News, Robertson defended the university's decision to punish Key.

"We do not feel that freedom of speech encompasses the practice of the deliberate manipulation of television images to transform an innocent gesture into something obscene," he said.

Sherri Stocks, a spokeswoman for Regent University, said the university "does not unduly restrict free speech."

"Regent School of Law believes it has a mandate to teach its students to act professionally, and with proper decorum," she wrote in an e-mail to the Student Press Law Center.

Key and others contend that although private universities and colleges are not legally required to protect students' freedom of expression to the same degree public universities are, they should in the interest of their students' education.

"The whole point of educational inquiry is to allow for robust debate and even critical comments," Hudson said.

Many private universities and colleges see protecting student expression as a selling point for prospective students, said Temple University journalism professor Thomas Eveslage.

"They welcome the exchange of ideas in the marketplace," he said. "They're still using this notion that (the university) is a place to explore and try new things and share new ideas."

Key said he is one of only a handful of "liberal Christians" on the predominantly conservative campus and that the university fosters an environment that discourages contrary views.

"The few and far between people that do have contrary views won't express them for fear of repercussions," he said. "We owe our heritage as Protestants to people who critiqued religious leaders. We should celebrate that, not crush it."

news, Regent University, Virginia