State university did not violate graduate student’s free speech or free exercise rights

February 17, 2012

A recent decision issued by the federal appeals court that hears appeals from federal trial courts in FL, GA and AL looked at whether a state university had violated a student’s First Amendment rights regarding speech and religion when it required a graduate student to participate in a remediation plan prior to participating in a clinical counseling practicum.

The case, Keeton v. Anderson-Wiley, No. 10-13925, 2011 WL 6275932 (11th Cir. Dec. 16, 2011), involved a Christian graduate student (Jennifer Keeton) in Augusta State University’s (“ASU”) master’s degree in school counseling program who held certain beliefs about the LGBTQ population (e.g., that the LGBTQ population suffers from identity confusion, that sexual orientation is a personal choice, that gender is fixed and binary) and had stated she would refer counseling clients from that population to someone who practices conversion therapy if she could not convince them to change their behavior.

ASU’s position was that it was required to adopt and teach its school counseling graduate students the tenets of the American Counseling Association’s (ACA) Code of Ethics to maintain its accreditation by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs and that the remediation plan was necessary so that Keeton could learn how to comply with the ACA Code of Ethics.  Keeton alleged that ASU violated her First Amendment rights by discriminating against her viewpoint, by retaliating against her for exercising her free speech rights, by compelling her to express beliefs she did not agree with, and by violating her free exercise of religion rights by requiring that she comply with the ACA Code of Ethics.

Keeton filed a lawsuit and asked the trial court to enjoin ASU from dismissing her from the graduate program if she refused to participate in the remediation plan.  The trial court denied her motion for a preliminary injunction and the 11th Circuit affirmed.  Perhaps one of the best quotes that sums up the outcome of the case is:  “Keeton does not have a constitutional right to disregard the limits ASU has established for its clinical practicum and set her own standards for counseling clients in the clinical practicum.”

An even more recent case from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, Ward v. Polite, Nos. 10-2100, 10-2145, 2012 WL 251939 (6th Cir. Jan. 27, 2012), looked at similar issues and resulted in a different outcome.  To read the full opinions in either case, click on the case name:  Keeton v. Anderson-Wiley or Ward v. Polite