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Pro-life student group lawsuit prompts end to ‘trigger warnings’ at Ohio university

ADF attorneys represent Students for Life at Miami U. of Ohio
Ellie Wittman, president of Students for Life at Miami University of Ohio, Hamilton

CINCINNATI – Miami University of Ohio has agreed to change its unconstitutional policies that authorized officials at its Hamilton campus to require students to post signs “warning” others about their group’s pro-life display. As part of a settlement ending a federal lawsuit that Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys filed on behalf of the campus chapter of Students for Life, the university has agreed to revise its policies to respect the free speech rights of all students, regardless of their viewpoint.
“We commend the university for quickly recognizing that its officials do not have the authority to censor student speech simply because of how someone might respond to it,” said ADF Legal Counsel Travis Barham. “By revising its policies to respect students’ constitutionally protected rights, the university has fostered the marketplace of ideas that public universities are supposed to be. After all, the only permission slip students need to speak on campus is the First Amendment, and they cannot be forced to post ‘trigger warning’ signs simply to share their ideas.”

Last year, Students for Life sued university officials after they shut down the group’s annual Cemetery of the Innocents display. When Students for Life sought approval to hold the display, an official informed the group’s president that the display would only be permitted if the group placed signs around campus warning people about its content. She justified this “trigger warning” requirement by saying the display might cause “emotional trauma” to those who might see it, and she offered to discuss “less harmful” ways the group could express its pro-life views. 

Under the settlement agreement, Miami University of Ohio has disavowed one policy officials 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.” The university has also agreed to pay Students for Life’s damages and attorneys’ fees.

“Today’s university students will be tomorrow’s voters and civic leaders,” said ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom. “That’s why it’s so important that public colleges and universities exemplify the First Amendment values they are supposed to be teaching to students. Miami University has shown it wants to do that by taking quick corrective action in agreeing to revise their policies to protect free speech.”

“Tolerance is a two-way street,” added Students for Life President Kristan Hawkins. “Just like any other student group seeking to promote its message, Students for Life members should be free to share their love and concern for mothers and their children without government censorship. These policy changes will protect the views of all students, not just those favored by a few administrators.”

In light of the settlement agreement reached in Students for Life at Miami University of Ohio, Hamilton v. Trustees of Miami University of Ohio, ADF attorneys dismissed the lawsuit on Thursday.

Thomas W. Kidd, Jr. one of more than 3,200 attorneys allied with ADF, is serving as local counsel for the Students for Life chapter. Students for Life of America is the nation’s largest pro-life youth organization and currently serves more than 1,200 groups in colleges, high schools, and medical schools across the U.S.

  • Pronunciation guide: Barham (BEHR’-um), Langhofer (LANG’-hoff-ur)

The ADF Center for Academic Freedom is dedicated to ensuring freedom of speech and association for students and faculty so that everyone can freely participate in the marketplace of ideas without fear of government censorship.


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