Former Regent student who posted freeze-frame of Robertson sues school

Lawsuit argues federal education law requires private colleges to respect free-speech rights

TEXAS -- A former student at Regent University School of Law filed suit Nov. 29 against the university, claiming that it violated his First Amendment rights when it punished him for posting an unfavorable picture of university president and televangelist Pat Robertson on the Internet.

Adam Key, who was a first-year law student at the Virginia Beach, Va.-based university, now resides in Spring, Texas, and filed his suit in the U.S. District Court in Houston. The case might mark the first time a student has made a First Amendment claim based on the Higher Education Act, a federal law that applies to all schools that receive federal funding.

"You're not allowed to use taxpayer money to violate the Constitution," Key said.

In September, Key posted as his Facebook profile picture a freeze-frame shot of Robertson scratching his face with his middle finger during an appearance on the television show "The 700 Club." Key was threatened with disciplinary sanctions and then suspended indefinitely because officials said he brought a gun to campus.

Key maintains that he never brought a gun to campus and that Regent was just punishing him for the photographic incident.

As of Monday, Regent University had not been formally served with the lawsuit, said university spokeswoman Judy Baker.

"When we are served, we're going to have our attorneys review it and they will help us determine what response to the lawsuit is appropriate," she said.

The complaint alleges a breach of contract because Key said he was induced to come to Regent based on promotional material that boasted of the school's defense of religious liberties. Since he termed the posting of the photograph religious speech, he said his right to post the photo should be protected as a religious liberty.

"When they were recruiting me they sent me letters that talked about their defense of religious liberty,"he said. "That was essentially what drew me to Regents in the first place."

A second claim asserts that Regent violated Key's First Amendment rights and violated a part of the Higher Education Act, which governs any school that receives federal money.

A portion of the act reads, "It is the sense of Congress that no student ... on the basis of participation in protected speech or protected association"should be punished.

But Mike Hiestand, a legal consultant for the Student Press Law Center, said that because the free-speech provision is prefaced with the phrase "sense of Congress,"it is not enforceable as law.

"There's no teeth to it,"he said. "It's basically just telling people this is what we'd like you to do, but we're not going to pass any laws to enforce it."

Still, Key's attorney, Randal Kallinen, insists that the preface is not relevant and that the act goes into detail to describe what it protects.

"I interpret it as binding and we're going to go forward with it such as it is,"he said. "If there was no oomph in this law why would they go into the definition of protected speech?"

Kallinen said that he has never heard of a case that uses the Higher Education Act as a basis for a student's First Amendment claim.

"This could be a case of first impression,"he said.

For More Information: 

Regent student faces discipline for posting satirical picture of Robertson News Flash, 10/18/2007

Va., news, Regent University, Virginia Beach