Tennessee Professor Under Investigation for Compelling Pro-LGBT Speech

June 25, 2013

Linda Brunton, a psychology professor at Columbia State Community College in Tennessee, is under investigation for allegations that she forced her students to wear rainbow ribbons, write essays, and make public statements in support of LGBT rights. According to the students who, along with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), asked the school to investigate, Brunton dismissed the views of objectors to the assignments as “ignorant and uneducated” and gave class credit only to those who completed the assignments. There is some disagreement over the allegedly compulsory nature of the assignment. Chris Sanders of the Tennessee Equality Project asserted that students were allowed to opt out of the exercises. But both current and past students have claimed that the assignments were not optional—one student reported receiving a grade of zero after using the essay as an opportunity to explain his personal beliefs, which were contrary to Brunton’s. ADF attorney Travis Barham explained why such an assignment is unacceptable: “Colleges should be the marketplace of ideas, not environments where professors manipulate students into advancing particular political agendas,” says litigation staff counsel Travis Barham. “The Constitution does not allow any government official to force another person to adopt or advocate a particular moral or political view. But this professor did just that with this assignment and thus clearly violated freedoms protected by the First Amendment.” Of course, FIRE has no institutional position on LGBT rights. But Barham is correct as to the law—if allegations are true, the assignments run contrary to basic First Amendment principles. The government—in this case, a public college professor employed by the government—may not compel a student to express a certain viewpoint any more than he can censor that student from expressing her viewpoint. As the Supreme Court stated in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943):If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.