Sometimes a court reaches the right decision for all of the wrong reasons. That seems to be the case in Friday’s unanimous ruling in Ward v. Polite by a three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.
A bigot like Julea Ward, who refused to do counseling for gay people due to her religious hatred of them, certainly deserves criticism. But does she deserve to be expelled from her graduate program in counseling at Eastern Michigan University? I don’t think so. My reasoning is this: colleges can require students to learn material. But colleges shouldn’t be able to require students to do anything with that knowledge. Colleges should not expel students from learning simply because their views might make them ethically unable to perform certain occupations. For example, a pacifist should never be expelled from a college program for policing, even if that person’s beliefs made them unable to work at a standard police occupation. (It’s also not clear that Ward was fully informed that merely requesting a referral of her gay client would result in her expulsion.) So the 6th Circuit was right to allow this case to go forward rather than dismiss it.
But the reasoning of the court is much more dubious. The court invoked the infamous high school newspaper case, Hazelwood, and applied it to the college (and even graduate school) setting. Treating graduate students as if they are minors unable to exercise constitutional rights is a dangerous precedent. The Supreme Court has never applied the misguided Hazelwood decision to universities, and lower courts need to stop expanding decisions that favor repression. I’m not certain if Ward deserves to win her case, but I do know that she shouldn’t lose on the grounds that students have no rights.