Law Student Adam Key, 23, is learning the practical elements of a first amendment case from his school, Regent University — though not under the usual clinical conditions. He is suing the University after he claims it violated his right to free speech last November in suspending for posting an unflattering picture of Pat Robertson on the Internet. Ironically, his case was heard by a judge who knows something about suspensions and discipline. Judge Samuel Kent, who was disciplined for misconduct himself and has been suspended from hearing criminal cases. He is believed to still be under criminal investigation for sexual assault and other crimes — and could face impeachment with another Fifth Circuit judge (click here).
Key alleges that Regent recruited him with a false promise of a standard legal education, including a community that valued free speech. (For full disclosure, I once gave a speech at Regents on free exercise of religion, free association, and other constitutional rights). He was given a full scholarship. He has added Robertson as a defendant. In his lawsuit, he wants to clean his disciplinary record from Regent, recover fees he paid for his unfinished third semester at the law school, and damages for embarrassment as well as emotional pain and suffering. He is now completing an interdisciplinary studies master’s degree at Stephen F. Austin State University and intends to enroll this fall as a second-year student at the University of Houston Law Center.
Key insists that he merely posted a picture as a joke after Robertson called for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Key changed a picture of Robertson to show an obscene gesture. Wen he was threatened with discipline by school officials, he took the picture down. He later added the picture to a condemnation of the school’s free speech and obscenity policies. Kent will now decide these initials question, despite his own precarious status, click here
While Key has legitimate objections to how Regents responded to his posting, his complaint is a long shot. Such challenges rarely succeed. It is not fraud, even if the school is wrong in how it reacted to the posting. He stands a better shot in objecting to the ABA over the accreditation of the law school, but even that is unlikely to result in serious action. Putting aside the legal merits, Regents has always struggled with its two missions — at least in the view of outsiders. It has a talented faculty and student body. However, it risks the image of a cult of personality when its students cannot exercise first amendment rights in the criticism of the Administration. Robertson’s statement regarding Chavez was bizarre and legitimately subject to scorn. Key was a bit juvenile in his chosen criticism but there is no question that it was an exercise of free speech. Notably, it was Robertson’s counterpart in the religious movement, Jerry Falwell, who helped establish the protection of parody before the Supreme Court in a case against Hustler magazine. (Click here).
Of course, Regents is not a state actor. However, as a legal educational institution, it must do more than teach first amendment values. It must also show a modicum of restraint in allowing such speech within its own community.
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