Judge tosses Georgia counseling student's First Amendment lawsuit

Court relies in part on Hazelwood

GEORGIA — A federal district court ruled Friday that Augusta State University officials did not violate the First Amendment when they ordered a graduate student to complete remedial training in response to her statements about homosexuality.

Jennifer Keeton’s case is significant because it is among the first to confront how much constitutional protection a college student has when opposing course requirements on religious grounds.

Keeton, who was enrolled in ASU’s Counselor Education Program, sued the university in July 2010 after faculty members told her she couldn’t complete the degree program if she did not complete a remediation plan, which included attending diversity workshops, reading articles about counseling GLBTQ (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transsexual, Queer/Questioning) students and submitting monthly writing assignments detailing what she learned.

Keeton was vocal about her beliefs inside and outside the classroom, and said she would not “condone the propriety of homosexual relations or a homosexual identity in a counseling situation,” according to the judge’s opinion.

The faculty was concerned Keeton’s strong beliefs could interfere with her ability to become an effective practitioner, as they conflicted with the professional ethical standards set forth by the American Counseling Association and the American School Counselor Association.

Though Keeton originally agreed to the plan, she later withdrew her consent via email, saying, “I really want to stay in the program, but I don’t want to have to attend all the events about what I think is not moral behavior, and then write reflections on them that don’t meet your standards because I haven’t changed my views or beliefs... My biblical views won’t change.”

With the help of Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal organization, Keeton filed suit seeking a court order allowing her to stay in the program without completing remediation, along with a declaration that her rights were violated and money damages. Keeton alleged the remediation plan violated her rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

The court refused to issue a preliminary injunction, a decision affirmed by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in December. The court ruled Keeton was unlikely to prevail in her lawsuit. As a result, Keeton was dismissed from the program.

The appellate court held the counseling program to be a school-sponsored, nonpublic forum that is part of ASU’s curriculum. Thus, the court reasoned, students in the program are entitled only to the Hazelwood level of First Amendment protection – that is, administrators can regulate speech for any legitimate educational reason.

When the case returned to the district court, the defendants – a handful of professors as well as the university’s board of regents – filed a motion to dismiss.

On Friday, the court threw out Keeton’s lawsuit, ruling that Keeton was aware of the conduct standards set by the counselor program and that she failed to prove those standards suppressed her free speech.

“The remediation plan imposed on Keeton pursuant to those policies placed limits on her speech and burdened her religious beliefs, but, as the allegations show, the plan was motivated by a legitimate pedagogical interest in cultivating a professional demeanor and concern that she might prove unreceptive to certain issues and openly judge her clients,” the opinion states. “The allegations show, in sum, that while Keeton was motivated by her particular religious beliefs, defendants were not.”

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, said the judge’s ruling goes beyond the Eleventh Circuit’s prior holding in the area of compelled speech, or required speech that conflicts with someone’s personal beliefs.

Judge J. Randal Hall concluded that Keeton was not being unlawfully compelled to affirm homosexual behavior because she would be required to do so only in the context of private meetings with clients – not in public statements. Goldstein took issue with that analysis.

“The constitutional prohibitions against compelled speech extends to freedom of conscience,” Goldstein said. “It doesn’t matter if they require her to say it in an empty or full room.”

Goldstein said the district judge's ruling gives broader authority to the school than the Eleventh Circuit’s reasoning.

He said the ruling, along with similar cases in Michigan and Minnesota, raises new constitutional questions about the rights of students in clinical training programs.

“It’s the attempt to impose a restriction on speech that would be unconstitutional to impose on a high school student,” he said. “You can’t punish a high school student for their views on homosexuality, whatever those views are.”

Alliance Defense Fund Attorney Jeff Schafer did not return requests for comment. It is unclear whether the organization will appeal to the Eleventh Circuit again.

Representatives of ASU were also unresponsive.

By Sydni Dunn, SPLC staff writer

Alliance Defending Freedom, Augusta State University, First Amendment, Georgia, news