Montclair students sue after cops stop protest against gun-free school zone
MONTCLAIR — A conservative Christian legal group is suing Montclair State University for allegedly trampling on the rights of a libertarian student group that was protesting gun control on campus.
The Alliance Defending Freedom on Wednesday filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court of New Jersey seeking a judge's order to overturn policies that prevent students from holding peaceful, unobtrusive demonstrations without first getting administrative approval two weeks in advance.
The lawsuit also says that the university's Bias Education Response Taskforce has the potential to treat unpopular opinions as hate speech and punish offending students with forced "reeducation."
The lawsuit centers on an incident in September during which sophomore Mena Botros and two other students dressed up as prisoners to protest gun-free school zones, which they believe benefit criminals at the expense of law-abiding citizens.
Even though the demonstrators were not blocking anyone's way or making noise, the lawsuit says a campus police officer ordered them to leave because they had not obtained a "speech permit."
The lawsuit also says that the student government is preventing the Young Americans for Liberty from securing funding from student fees even though liberal and progressive groups including YesSheCanCampaign, Environmental Club, Animal Activists, Justice for Education and Femvolution receive funding. The university collects $1.5 million a semester by charging students a $48.90 student activity fee.
The lawsuit says the Bias Education Response Taskforce, whose members include faculty, administrators and campus police, has a chilling effect on speech. The complaint says the libertarian group has plans to hold anti-war events and "speak against minimum wage laws by setting up a 'unionized hot dog stand' and comparing its prices to a normal hot dog stand." But they're reluctant to do so because they "credibly fear that expressing their views on their preferred topics could result in being reported, investigated, and punished."
"Plaintiffs credibly fear that University Police will investigate them for criminal charges pursuant to a 'bias incident' investigation," the lawsuit says. "Plaintiffs also fear that he University may seek to recommend Plaintiffs for 'reeducation' through counselling or by mandating that they attend some of its 'educational' social justice programs. Plaintiffs also credibly fear that the University will punish them and impose sanctions according to the Student Code of Conduct for violating University policies, including the unconstitutional discriminatory harassment policy and Speech Permit Policy."
According to the university, the task force is supposed “to provide a well-coordinated and comprehensive response to incidents of intolerance and bias with respect to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, religion and national origin.”
The university defines a “bias incident” as “conduct, speech or expression that is motivated by bias or prejudice but doesn’t involve a criminal act.”
A spokeswoman for Montclair State University said Thursday that the school had not yet been served with the lawsuit.
President Susan A. Cole said in a written statements that the university "is absolutely and unequivocally committed to freedom of speech."
"Our policy and procedures concerning demonstrations and assemblies are based on a balance between the two principles," Cole said. "The first principle is the right of members of the University community to freedom of assembly and speech and the benefits to be derived in a free society and in a free and open University from fostering discourse and permitting the exchange of ideas. Consistent with that principle, no member of the University community is subject to any limitation or penalty for demonstrating or assembling with others for the expression of his/her viewpoint.
"The second principle is the right of all members of the University community to be able to engage without disruption in all University organized activities ... The University has adopted appropriate procedures to assure that it functions in accordance with those principles, and we have no reason to think that we have taken any action in violation of our principles or policies."
The students are being represented by Michael P. Laffey of the Messina Law Firm in Holmdel as well as Michael R. Ross and Tyson C. Langhofer from the Alliance Defending Freedom.
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.