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High court won’t hear UMBC students’ case

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear arguments in a case in which a University of Maryland, Baltimore County pro-life student group claims its free speech was inhibited by having to relocate a graphic anti-abortion display.

The Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based group of Christian attorneys, filed a certiorari petition with the Supreme Court in May on behalf of Rock for Life-UMBC, asking the court to determine whether the students had legal standing to challenge “speech codes” governing their behavior.

“We were hoping that the Supreme Court would intervene and uphold the First Amendment freedoms and allow the students to challenge the speech codes,” said Travis Barham, Alliance Defense Fund litigation counsel.

UMBC officials referred comment to the Maryland Attorney General’s office, which handled the case.

Maryland Assistant Attorney General Sally Swann said she had expected the decision, but was pleased the court denied the petition.

“On all fronts, the university has been vindicated,” Swann said.

Policy changed

The university doesn’t have “speech codes,” she said. What was at issue was UMBC’s Code of Student Conduct and facilities’ use policy, she said. Those policies were changed after meeting with the group’s attorneys to include more specific language on when the university could move events and to change a section of the Code of Student Conduct.

The conduct code was changed from prohibiting behavior that jeopardized emotional safety of others to prohibiting behavior that jeopardized the health and safety of self or others.

In April 2007, the school’s Rock for Life club, now called Students for Life, reserved space to show the “Genocide Awareness Project,” a display of graphic pictures comparing abortion to genocide at the school’s Commons Terrace. On the day the group was to show the display, university officials requested it be moved to the North Lawn, an area, the group contended, where few students would see it.

After another unsuccessful attempt to show the posters in the desired spot in November 2007, the group filed suit against the university.

The student group was allowed to exhibit the posters in October 2008 at the Commons Terrace, but claims that request was granted only because of the lawsuit filed earlier that year.

A federal judge ruled against the group after the university agreed in 2008 to change some of its student conduct policies. However, the group appealed to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals because not all of the policies were changed, Barham said, and there was nothing preventing the university from going back to its previous rules.

One of the policies that remained unchanged was the sexual harassment policy, which continued to prohibit verbal or physical conduct that creates a hostile or offensive environment.

“That just covers a broad range of protected speech,” Barham said.

The 4th Circuit upheld the lower court’s ruling and Alliance Defense Fund took its case to the Supreme Court because the group wasn’t allowed to challenge the university’s sexual harassment codes.

No one was ever accused of violating the sexual harassment code, nor was there any credible threat of enforcement, Swann said.

“UMBC is a very open campus, we have 8,000 events on campus a year,” Swann said. “It’s well used by student groups and outside groups.”