During her senior year of high school, Ellen Wittman stood on stage with Dr. Ben Carson at a Dayton Right to Life event. It was there that she spoke these words:
“It only takes a few brave souls to defend life, and hundreds, even thousands, will follow suit.”
She probably didn’t realize then how much these words would be exemplified in her own life a few years later as a student at Miami University of Ohio, Hamilton.
During her sophomore year of college, as president of her Students for Life chapter, Ellen requested permission to put up a “Cemetery of the Innocents” display—a display of small crosses placed together in the ground to commemorate the number of lives lost to abortion.
Despite Students for Life having already done this for several years, in 2017, the University told them they were not permitted to put up their display without also posting warning signs around campus, essentially discouraging people from viewing the exhibit.
But the First Amendment doesn’t require people to give “trigger warnings” just because some might disagree with them or find their views offensive. Read the details of this case below.
What is Students for Life at Miami University of Ohio, and who is Ellen Wittman?
Students for Life of America is an organization dedicated to protecting unborn lives all around the world. The group raises awareness about the catastrophic effects of abortion for all persons involved and our moral duty to stop its practice. Students for Life of America serves student groups on 1,400 campuses across the country in middle schools, high schools, and colleges—including Miami University of Ohio, Hamilton (MUOH).
One event the group uses to raise awareness is a display called the “Cemetery of the Innocents,” where hundreds of white crosses are planted in the ground to represent the lives lost through abortion each day. The display also features an explanatory sign.
Ellen Wittman, who was president of Students for Life at MUOH in the fall of 2017, had seen the Cemetery of the Innocents display make a difference in the lives of her fellow students on campus. Students for Life had even received emails in the past from students facing an unplanned pregnancy who saw the display and chose life.
“If we can save one life through the display,” said Ellen, “it’s worth it.”
Students for Life at MUOH had put up the Cemetery of the Innocents three times from 2015 to 2016. But in 2017, when Ellen requested permission for the display as they had in the past, her organization hit a roadblock.
Ellen and her fellow group members were told by university administrators that they could put up the display but that they also had to include “trigger warnings” around campus—signs warning students about the content of the display. University officials said they feared the display might cause “emotional trauma” to those who might see it, and that Students for Life should seek “less harmful” ways of expressing their pro-life views.
But these officials had not demanded trigger warnings for past displays about transgenderism, domestic violence, or “reproductive justice.” It was clear they were singling out Students for Life for unfair treatment.
As a result of the warning sign requirement, Students for Life at MUOH elected not to put up the display, but Ellen knew that she and her group needed to stand up for their rights.
So she contacted Alliance Defending Freedom, and ADF filed a lawsuit on behalf of Students for Life at MUOH in November 2017. The lawsuit challenged the university’s policies that gave officials broad authority to grant or deny a group’s request to conduct an exhibit on campus.
The MUOH policies required student groups:
- To submit a request form in order to exhibit on campus seven days in advance;
- To explain the message and purpose of the exhibit;
- To publicly identify themselves as the student group sponsoring the exhibit; and
- To agree that university officials can edit the display in any way they want.
Moreover, university officials had unchecked power to impose further requirements (such as including a “trigger warning” sign) and to approve or reject exhibiting requests based solely on their own discretion.
In addition to these policies, the university’s student code of conduct defined “disorderly conduct” to include any expression that “causes alarm, annoyance, or nuisance.” This vague standard could have been used to ban certain viewpoints from campus, essentially becoming a heckler’s veto allowing officials to silence some students simply because someone might be offended by what is said.
Policies like these left the door open for officials to discriminate against viewpoints they do not like or to compel students to express messages they would not voluntarily convey, as was the case with Ellen and Students for Life.
Thankfully, in March 2018, the university settled the case, agreeing to change its unconstitutional policies.
Under the settlement agreement, Miami University of Ohio disavowed the policy used to impose the warning sign requirement, a policy that also created a complex, burdensome permit system for speech activities. It agreed to revise a second policy used to justify the warning signs so that other student groups will not face similar mistreatment. And it agreed to revise a third policy so officials cannot stifle speech simply because it could “cause alarm, annoyance, or nuisance.”
Encountering different viewpoints on campus is an important part of the college experience and of life in a free society, not a traumatic experience that requires a warning sign.
- November 2017: ADF filed a lawsuit on behalf of Students for Life at Miami University of Ohio after its officials took numerous actions that shut down a pro-life display at the Hamilton campus.
- February 2018: Miami University of Ohio agreed to change its unconstitutional policies to respect the free speech rights of all students, regardless of their viewpoint.
The bottom line
Public universities should never be able to ban certain viewpoints on campus just because they disagree with them or find them offensive, and they should never be able to force students to express a government-mandated message, especially when it undermines the message students are trying to convey.