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Chicago art student investigated for expressing religious beliefs

A peer’s complaint about the student’s religious beliefs prompted a Title IX investigation, during which an administrator suggested the school’s commitment to “diversity” negates its promises of free speech.
Lion statue in front of the Art Institute of Chicago


Felix Lipov /

Lion statue in front of the School of the Art Institute Of Chicago.

Of all places, an art school should understand the importance of expressive freedom — but not all do. FIRE is working to ensure administrators at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago know they need to respect students’ rights after the school reportedly launched a full-scale Title IX investigation into graduate student Ann Gould, who says she did nothing more than answer a peer’s question about Gould’s religious beliefs.

As detailed in FIRE’s August letter, during a July presentation of her art, Gould cited the biblical passage 1 Timothy 4:2. The next day, as Gould moved a cart of her paintings and presentation materials, another student approached and asked Gould if she believed the student was going to hell for having gay sex. Caught off guard, Gould told the student she did not know the student was having gay sex and attempted to change the subject.

Following this interaction, the student filed a Title IX complaint against Gould. On July 26, SAIC administrator Dushko Petrovich called Gould into his office and questioned her about the interaction, asking whether she told the fellow student she would go to hell. Troublingly, Gould says Petrovich told her that “[y]ou probably think you have the right to freedom of speech, but you don’t here, because we value diversity.”

As part of the investigation, Gould was barred from contact with her accuser and required to meet with SAIC Title IX Deputy Director Verrnon Fisher. 

SAIC ultimately dismissed the complaint on Aug. 21 — rightfully so — after it found the interaction did not meet the university’s definition of harassment. SAIC applied the correct standard for peer-on-peer harassment in the educational context that the Supreme Court established in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education. Davis protects conversations like the one Gould had by properly setting a high bar for when speech crosses the line into harassing conduct, which happens only when conduct, including speech, is “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it can be said to deprive the victims of access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school.” 

Although FIRE is pleased SAIC dismissed the complaint, we remain concerned with the fact that an investigation was launched over clearly protected speech, the manner in which it was handled, and the school’s unwillingness to transparently address its misstep.

When schools receive Title IX complaints about speech, they should, to avoid chilling protected expression, conduct a threshold analysis to determine whether any of the allegations could even be constitutionally construed as harassment. Here, the brief, one-off interaction between Gould and the student would never be “severe and pervasive” enough to meet Davis, and therefore should never have triggered an investigation.

This process of vetting claims is a critical aspect of protecting students’ expressive rights. Any investigation brings stress, reputational damage, and threat of disciplinary action. Routinely notifying students of potentially unmeritorious claims chills student expression, even when the investigation is ultimately resolved in the student’s favor.

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FIRE was also troubled to hear that administrators described SAIC’s freedom of speech promises as illusory. Its student handbook promises that SAIC “support[s] and encourage[s] inquiry and expression,” and guarantees students the right to freely “examine and discuss all questions of interest to them and to express opinions individually or as part of an organized group, both publicly and privately.”

Any commitment to diversity should not exclude or punish specific viewpoints or beliefs. Instead, it should lead to embracing students’ right to hold and express a broad spectrum of beliefs, including religious convictions with which some may disagree.

SAIC has not yet responded to FIRE’s letter. Until it does, FIRE will continue to call on SAIC to revise its policies to align with the First Amendment, recognizing that diversity and freedom of expression are complementary — not competing — values. 

Although FIRE is pleased SAIC dismissed the complaint, we remain concerned with the fact that an investigation was launched over clearly protected speech, the manner in which it was handled, and the school’s unwillingness to transparently address its misstep.

FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).


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