The Detroit Free Press reported on Monday that Eastern Michigan University (EMU) will pay former graduate student Julea Ward $75,000 to settle Ward’s lawsuit against the university. Ward filed suit in 2009 after being dismissed from EMU’s graduate counseling program for inquiring about the possibility of referring a gay client who sought counseling regarding a same-sex relationship, citing her religious beliefs. In January, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit allowed Ward’s suit against EMU to continue after she appealed a federal district court’s dismissal. This week’s settlement ends Ward’s suit. In a statement, a university spokesman said that "EMU has made the decision that is in the best interest of its students and the taxpayers of the state of Michigan to resolve the litigation rather than continue to spend money on a costly trial."
Both sides are claiming victory. The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the Christian legal organization representing Ward, had sought a court order against the graduate program’s policies, which track the American Counseling Association’s ethical codes, but no such changes are included in the settlement’s terms. EMU’s statement notes that the settlement "leaves the university’s policies, programs, and curricular requirements intact." For its part, ADF also hails the lawsuit’s resolution. Senior Counsel Jeremy Tedesco said in a statement that the organization is "pleased that Julea and her constitutionally protected rights have been vindicated." In addition to the payment, ADF’s press release notes that Ward’s expulsion will be removed from her record.
The lawsuit is now concluded, but Ward’s Sixth Circuit win may have a lasting impact on student rights. As I wrote back in January, the Sixth Circuit reached the right result, but for the wrong reasons. By relying extensively on high school case law to analyze Ward’s First Amendment claims, the Sixth Circuit blurred the bright line between the speech rights afforded students in the high school and higher ed contexts. Because of this wrongheaded conflation, would-be campus censors in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee may believe themselves to have legal cover to silence student speech. The Sixth Circuit all but cautions against such a result, noting the difference in maturity levels between high schoolers and college students. Nevertheless, the opinion unfortunately provides legal ammunition for those seeking to import high school speech standards into collegiate disciplinary decision-making. FIRE will closely monitor the case’s impact and work to ensure that student rights on campuses within the Sixth Circuit do not suffer as a result.