Lawsuit accuses Chemeketa Community College of violating students’ free-speech rights

Chemeketa Community College (File/Salem Reporter)

Chemeketa Community College violated the constitutional rights of a pro-life student group by only allowing its members to distribute pamphlets, flyers and other materials in small “speech zones,” a lawsuit alleges.

The complaint was filed on March 5 in U.S. District Court in Eugene on behalf of Emma Howell and Marcos Sanchez, the co-presidents of Chemeketa Students for Life. The students are represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Arizona-based nonprofit. The lawsuit names college President Jessica Howard as well as its board and other top administrators as defendants.

The complaint argues that the college has prevented the student group from effectively communicating its message. Specifically, the complaint targets Chemeketa’s policies that require students wanting to provide literature, display signs or engage others in the college’s outdoor areas to receive permission two weeks in advance. These activities can only occur in two speech zones that make up less than 1.5% of the college’s 100-acre campus, according to the complaint.

“These policies and practices disable and chill protected student expression,” the complaint said.

As a result of the policies, Chemeketa Students for Life was unable to engage with students in response to breaking news or legislation, according to the complaint. It mentioned how the group hosted a debate on campus in February about physician-assisted suicide but Sanchez was unable to hand out fliers promoting the event. As the U.S. Senate considered two abortion-related bills, the group was similarly unable to speak with students, distribute literature or display “a poster showing fetal pain.”

The complaint states that the college had similar policies but abandoned them in 2011 after a dispute over enforcement.

“Chemeketa endeavors to uphold the constitutional rights and civil liberties of all student groups equally,” Marie Hulett, the college’s executive director for institutional advancement said in an email. “We are looking into the claims and will have more information available as appropriate, but our practice is to not comment about pending litigation.”

The complaint seeks a court order preventing the college from enforcing the policies, attorney’s fees and compensation to the students “in an amount to be determined by the evidence.”

Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.

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