A pro-life student group refused to post “trigger warnings” ordered by Miami University officials and now has sued the school in federal court after the students’ anti-abortion display was banned by school officials.
The lawsuit filed Wednesday on the Miami students’ behalf by the national Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) contends school officials suppressed students’ free-speech rights by requiring such warnings be posted near hundreds of miniature graveyard crosses symbolic of aborted babies.
But Miami officials said Thursday the disagreement is based on an “unfortunate misunderstanding” and vowed that if any errors were made they will be rectified.
According to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for Southern Ohio, Miami University officials “refused to approve the (anti-abortion) display unless plaintiffs agreed to post warning signs around campus that effectively urged people not to view it, forcing plaintiffs to present a ‘trigger warning’ for their own display.”
School officials allegedly cited “emotional trauma” student viewers might suffer, according to ADF officials, if they viewed the miniature cross display.
The October display has been an annual tradition on Miami University Hamilton’s campus, said Alliance officials in a statement.
“The lawsuit challenges the university’s policies that give officials broad powers to determine whether an exhibit can occur and what it can say—powers that officials used in Hamilton to impose a “trigger warning” on the local Students for Life chapter,” read the statement.
“No university official has the authority to censor student speech simply because of how someone might respond to it,” said ADF Legal Counsel Travis Barham. “Like all government officials, public university administrators have an obligation to respect students’ free speech rights. The First Amendment secures the freedom of all students to participate in the marketplace of ideas, and it prohibits university officials from imposing trigger warnings that restrict what some students can say to spare the feelings of others.”
But Miami Spokeswoman Claire Wagner said, “this lawsuit appears to be the result of an unfortunate misunderstanding at Miami University’s Hamilton campus. Miami University does not require trigger warnings.”
“All Miami University students and student organizations have First Amendment rights to free speech. As a result, the university does not approve or disapprove of any student organization’s display based on content or subject matter,” said Wagner.
“Our values dictate that we protect the rights of our students and student organizations to hold and express disparate beliefs and we encourage the discussion and learning that comes from sharing our differences,” she said.
Student representatives of “Students for Life of America - Miami University of Ohio” declined to comment, citing the recent legal action on their behalf.
ADF, which is the nation’s largest pro-life youth organization claiming to serve more than 1,100 groups in colleges, high schools, and medical schools across the U.S., is seeking a ruling to change Miami’s policies and receive a monetary award for the students.
“Since 2015, Students for Life of Miami University of Ohio, Hamilton, has regularly conducted its Cemetery of the Innocents display on the campus’s Central Quad. The display features small crosses placed in the ground to commemorate the lives lost to abortion, along with an explanatory sign,” said ADF officials.
“In October, (Miami University) Students for Life President Ellen Wittman e-mailed a university official to request approval to hold the display once again. The official responded by saying that the group could conduct the display only if it placed signs around campus warning people about its content,” ADF officials.
The Miami official is alleged by ADF officials to have “justified this warning sign requirement by saying she feared that the pro-life display might cause ‘emotional trauma’ for those who might view it and because she wanted to help them ‘better protect and manage their emotional reactions to the display.’”
“Additionally, she offered to meet with the group to discuss ‘less harmful’ ways of expressing its pro-life views,” claims the alliance.
But Wagner said the alleged incident is contrary to school policy and “if mistakes were made, they will be addressed.”