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Students' lawsuit targets policies against 'intolerance'

April 12, 2006

GEORGIA -- When their affirmative action bake sale was shut down, College Republicans at the Georgia Institute of Technology bristled.

When university officials ordered parts of their protest signs for ''The Vagina Monologues'' be painted over with white paint, they fumed.

Now, two members of the student organization are suing the public university in Atlanta, alleging the school's Community Policies repeatedly restricted their free speech and continue to infringe on their rights.

The university's Community Guide for 2005-06 identifies several ''Acts of Intolerance'' that are considered ''unacceptable,'' including ''any attempt to injure, harm, malign or harass a person because of race, religious belief, color, sexual/affectional orientation.''

The policy also says that ''denigrating written/verbal communication ... directed toward an individual because of their characteristics or beliefs'' is an ''Act of Intolerance.''

The university has indicated with these policies that ''people who have the 'acceptable' viewpoint should have more rights to speak than those with the 'unacceptable' viewpoint, which is fundamentally contrary to the First Amendment,'' said David French, an Alliance Defense Fund attorney representing students Orit Sklar and Ruth Malhotra.

Attorneys for the students filed the lawsuit against Georgia Tech in a federal court on March 16.

The Alliance Defense Fund is a non-profit organization based in Scottsdale, Ariz., that advocates for religious liberty and expression.

Amelia Gambino, spokeswoman for Georgia Tech, said the university first received a copy of the lawsuit last week, and that she was unable to comment on it.

But she said to her knowledge, no student has ever challenged the university's policy against "Acts of Intolerance."

The lawsuit asserts that under the university's current policies, the religious views expressed by the two students -- both described in the lawsuit as ''religiously observant'' -- could be considered offensive and punishable.

Sklar did not respond to interview requests, and Malhotra referred questions to representatives at the Alliance Defense Fund.

The students approached the Alliance Defense Fund in January, French said, after the university censored portions of signs protesting ''The Vagina Monologues'' and shut down a ''diversity bake sale'' in fall 2003.

According to an article in the Technique, the student newspaper at Georgia Tech, the diversity bake sale charged purchasers different prices based on their gender or ethnicity, so that ''the sale mimicked colleges admission policies.''

''Because of the Institute's onerous speech codes ... [Sklar and Malhotra] cannot engage in the full range of dialogue on matters of political, cultural and religious importance,'' the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit also challenges the university's refusal to fund student religious groups with student activities fees, a ''surprisingly common'' policy at public universities around the country, French said.

Gambino, the spokeswoman, said that claim is inaccurate. The only time religious organizations are refused school funding is when the money would be used for fundraising events, she said.

But the most interesting portion of the students' complaint, French said, is its questioning of Safe Space, a voluntary education program offered by the university.

The stated mission of Safe Space is to ''dispel negative stereotypes and present factually accurate information about [gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender] people.''

One portion of the program's training manual answers the question, ''Is homosexuality immoral?'' Another portion of the manual summarizes religious views on homosexuality from 16 faith traditions, including Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam.

Gambino said about 100 people participate in the Safe Space program annually, and that most participants work in the university's housing department.

Stephanie Ray, director of diversity programs at Georgia Tech, did not return a call for comment.

The Safe Space program amounts to ''religious instruction on sexuality issues,'' that indicates a preference for more tolerant religious viewpoints, French said.

The program teaches university employees, and therefore Georgia state employees, that the university would ''rather you be a Buddhist than a Baptist'' when it comes to attitudes about homosexuality, French said.

No such preference exists, Gambino said.

''Georgia tech has longtime commitment to freedom of speech,'' she said. ''We do take civil rights of students very seriously. The university has a history of tolerance and open dialogue on a wide variety of subjects.''

French said the university's attorneys have not issued a formal response to the lawsuit.

''Speech codes lend themselves to arbitrary enforcement against minority viewpoints,'' he said.

--by Allison Retka, SPLC staff writer

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