By Rex Hall Jr. at MLive
KALAMAZOO, MI – Western Michigan University will pay $35,000 to settle a federal lawsuit filed last year by a student group that said the university’s policies are unconstitutional and restrict free speech on campus.
That’s according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a Philadelphia, Pa.-based organization that assisted the Kalamazoo Peace Center in its legal action, which was filed in October in U.S. District Court.
Attorneys for WMU and the Peace Center reached a settlement Thursday, according to court documents. Those documents did not disclose the terms of the settlement, however.
The civil-rights lawsuit, which was filed Oct. 20, stemmed from the Peace Center’s efforts in April 2014 to bring Boots Riley, a well-known musician, activist and labor advocate to campus as a keynote speaker as part of the Peace Center’s 35th Annual Peace Week.
WMU spokeswoman Cheryl Roland confirmed Monday that the university agreed to pay $35,000 in attorney fees to settle the case “mostly to come to a quick resolution and to let everyone move forward.”
The university will not pay any damages in the case, she said.
The suit, which was filed by the Peace Center and its co-directors, Jessica Clark and Nola Wiersma, named as defendants WMU President John M. Dunn, Vice President of Student Affairs Diane Anderson, former WMU Department of Public Safety Chief Robert Brown, Department of Public Safety Deputy Chief Blaine Kalafut, Associate Registrar Laura M. Thomas and Jan Van Der Kley, the university’s vice president for business and finance and treasurer for the Board of Trustees.
The lawsuit said WMU stymied the Peace Center’s efforts to bring Riley to campus and initially denied a request to hold Riley’s April 3, 2014, speech at Sangren Hall. The university then later clarified that no campus venue would be available for Riley’s visit, according to the lawsuit.
In response to a request to reconsider, the Peace Center’s lawsuit said university officials told the student group that Riley could come to campus, but only if the Peace Center paid for the presence of police officers and security for the lecture.
The move prompted the Peace Center to hold the event off campus at the Wesley Foundation.
The lawsuit called into question WMU’s room-reservation and event security policies and said the university has in place a burdensome system for approving campus event fliers that forbids campus groups from posting any announcements until an event has been approved.
In an answer filed in January by Attorney Pamela C. Enslen, WMU officials denied any wrongdoing and sought to have the lawsuit dismissed with prejudice by U.S. District Judge Gordon J. Quist.
Roland held strong on the stance Monday that WMU officials did nothing wrong in the case and she said the settlement was in no way an admission of fault. She said attorneys for the Peace Center had initially sought $50,000 in attorney fees, as well as $20,000 each in damages for the Peace Center, Clark and Wiersma to settle the lawsuit.
“So, the settlement was certainly a fraction of that original request,” Roland said.
A news release issued Monday by FIRE said WMU officials agreed to the financial settlement of $35,000 “in damages and attorney fees.” The university also agreed to “revise its policies to comply with the First Amendment,” according to the news release.
“We are very happy that WMU now has constitutional policies and are grateful to FIRE, our attorney Bob Corn-Revere, and his team at Davis Wright Tremaine,” Wieresma said in the news release issued by FIRE. “All organizations on campus will be able to share their messages without having to worry about being silenced because they can’t pay arbitrary security fees. We were glad to assist in creating these just policies and look forward to continuing to work for peace and just on Western Michigan University’s campus.”
Roland emphasized Monday that WMU is paying no damages in the case and she said that the policy changes implemented by WMU involved “some minor changes to our procedures.” Those changes put in place an appeals process for students groups if university officials request that a group help with the cost of security for an event, she said.
“We don’t think we did anyting wrong,” Roland said. “We’ve had an opportunity to fine tune our procedures a bit but I believe that would have happened anyway without a lawsuit. We’re just ready to move forward.”