Eight years ago, Beth Sheeran was a nursing student at Spokane Falls Community College. Now, she’s pursuing a doctorate to be a nurse practitioner. Her goal is “to work to empower people to serve with competence in their own respective communities and fight on behalf of the most vulnerable both here and abroad.”
She looks back on her time in college as a formative experience in teaching her how to speak up for her–and others’–rights. After all, it’s probably not in every college student’s plan to enlist the help of Alliance Defending Freedom to sue their school. But that’s exactly what Beth did.
In 2009, Beth was working with the Christian club on campus to put on a pro-life event, speaking up for the unborn. When the planning for the event was almost complete, however, she found out the school was going to shut down the event.
Many students likely would have backed down. But Beth set out to find out why. She met with faculty and administrators to talk with them and try to understand their decision.
What she found was a determination to silence free speech on campus, thinly veiled by absurd objections such as “Washington is a pro-choice state, and we can’t use school grounds for a pro-life display.”
One official even told Beth that the pro-life event was biased, discriminatory, and violated the district’s “Stop the Hate” policy. Under this policy, students can be punished for “bias incidents,” which, according to the “Pyramid of Hate ,” include “stereotyping, jokes, rumors, justifying biases by seeking out like-minded people, accepting negative information, screening out positive information, insensitive remarks and non-inclusive language.” A group of students seeking a speaker that reflected their views was a step on the path to “genocide.”
Interesting, considering that Beth had purposefully set out to talk with those who disagreed with her and wanted to shut down her pro-life event. Yet, school officials only seemed interested in letting “like-minded people” speak.
The professor informed them that if they held the event, or even so much as handed out a pro-life flyer, they could be expelled. That’s when Beth decided to take a stand.
“We have entered a time where the ability to speak one’s faith freely is being compromised by schools who are refusing to follow the law,” she says. “These widespread attacks on some of the most fundamental freedoms we enjoy under the Constitution create an environment where students are bullied into a corner and told to be quiet about their faith. I had no idea that this would happen to me on campus but was confident that if I didn’t stand up for my own right to speak on campus that other students down the line would be subject to even more intimidation.”
ADF filed suit on Beth’s behalf against the community college district whose policies not only were in effect at Spokane Falls, but also at other institutions in the area.
The community college district soon backed down and settled the case, agreeing to revise its restrictive speech policies. Students under that district can now enjoy the full benefits of the First Amendment, all because one student was willing to take a stand not only for her rights and the rights of her student group, but for all current and future students in the district.
As students find it harder to exercise their foundational freedoms on campus, Beth encourages them to take a stand: “We should work hard to preserve an environment where society can wrestle with big ideas through diverse and vibrant discourse.”
With universities using restrictive speech policies and practices to silence their students, it’s important that students know and are willing to stand for their constitutional rights.
That’s something that Beth understood in 2009. And through her actions, the students in that school district will leave campus with a better understanding of their rights and how to engage in helpful and constructive dialogue with those who have different opinions.