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Volume 68, Issue 112, Monday, March 17, 2003


Court favors student speech

Cougar News Staff

In the latest episode of the year-long struggle between Pro-Life Cougars and the UH administration, a U.S. District Court affirmed its support of free speech and granted the student organization its motion for summary judgment, finding UHis original public demonstration policy to be unconstitutional. 

"We're completely thrilled," said Pro-Life Cougars Chairman Jonathan Saenz, a UH law student. "We think it's a tremendous victory for Pro-Life Cougars, the University of Houston community and the First Amendment as well."

Pro-Life Cougars filed a lawsuit in federal court against UH, Vice President of Student Affairs Elwyn C. Lee and Dean William F. Munson in January 2002 when their application for a photo exhibit across campus was rejected. The complaint charged UH with violating the group's First Amendment right to free speech and Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection. 

In June, Judge Ewing Werlein Jr., who granted this latest motion, ruled for the Pro-Life Cougars when he granted their preliminary injunction, requiring UH refrain from enforcing the original policy until the case could be heard on the merits. Last semester Pro-Life Cougars sponsored an exhibit by the national anti-abortion organization "Justice for All." Saenz credits the court's preliminary injunction with forcing the UH administration to allow the exhibit.

In July, UH issued a new "Freedom of Expression" policy. Pro-Life Cougars filed an amended complaint to address the new policy, and UH filed a motion seeking dismissal of the injunction as moot. Werlein denied UH's motion in August 2002. 

The court held that the original policy was unconstitutional because it "vests Dean Munson with unfettered discretion" in determining which student groups can use Butler Plaza for exhibits or other expressive activity. Werlein noted that the policy was void of guidelines or standards for UH to use in approving or denying permits. As it stands, UH's original policy does not prevent Munson from denying permits based on their content, the court said. 

In striking down the original policy, the court noted that Munson was not required by the policy to provide any explanation for his unilateral decisions regarding the potential of a student activity to cause disruptions. 

The court also took issue with the fact that Munsonis decisions were not open to review. The new policy, instituted last year, provides student groups with an appeals process. It does not, however, outline the criteria that Munson must use in granting of denying a permit for expressible activity.

The court order issued last Thursday ruled only on UH's original policy. The claims regarding the new policy are still pending, with a status conference scheduled for April 17, 2003. The Pro-Life Cougars, however, are not daunted. 

"We can only hope that this court ruling will convince the administration to recognize that student speech is held in the highest regard," Saenz said.

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