Montclair disbands 'Bias Education Response Taskforce' in free speech lawsuit settlement

The Alliance Defending Freedom sued Montclair on behalf of the university's YAL chapter.

A settlement between the parties was recently reached, which will lead to the university dropping many of its rules that regulate speech.

Alliance Defending Freedom, a non-profit Christian legal advocacy group, just scored a significant victory for students’ freedom of speech at Montclair State University. 

ADF attorneys claimed that several policies enforced by the university violated student’s rights under the 1st and 14th amendments. Rather than taking the case to trial, both parties reached a settlement this summer that will result in the effective repeal of the rules the ADF took issue with.

There were three university rules that the ADF believed the New Jersey school was unconstitutionally imposing within the context of it being a public institution. 

For one, Montclair required students to obtain permission from university staff two weeks prior to holding an event in which they would speak publicly. ADF asserted that this practice unconstitutionally limited student speech by imposing a form of prior restraint on their expression. 

Second, the university also maintained a “Bias Education Response Taskforce” that was intended to punish speech determined to be “motivated by bias or prejudice.” 

ADF lawyers claimed in their lawsuit that the designation for hateful speech was too broad and could be applied flippantly to suppress “protected speech on important social and political discussions in which [students] regularly engage.”

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Thirdly, Montclair’s student government association created a “class” system for student organizations that could be used to inhibit the ability of clubs to obtain funding, according to the lawsuit. 

Since the SGA maintained full discretion over this mechanism, ADF argued that the body could, and in fact did, use that power to penalize others based on viewpoint. This mechanism will be repealed as a condition of the settlement. 

In a statement to Campus Reform, Michael Ross, legal counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, stated, “Universities should be encouraging free speech, not shutting it down, but unfortunately, many public colleges and universities continue to violate the First Amendment rights of students on campus.”

“Alliance Defending Freedom’s Center for Academic Freedom has been incredibly successful at challenging such unconstitutional policies and has a record of over 400 victories on campuses across the country,” he continued.

Ross also told Campus Reform that he is “fully satisfied with the new policies that Montclair State University has put in place” at this time.

The legal complaint initially arose in 2019 after the university shut down an event being hosted by the campus Young Americans for Liberty chapter. 

YAL students had dressed up in orange jumpsuits and held up signs in favor of gun free zones; the implication being that criminals support gun free zones as they don’t need to abide by them. Campus police were called to shut down the demonstration as university officials had determined that they had not obtained permission to speak two weeks in advance. 

According to the lawsuit, YAL students were also restricted from requesting funding prior to that event due to the organization class they had been assigned by the student government. That designation, alongside a two-week permission requirement and bias response task force, was challenged by the ADF on behalf of the YAL chapter. 

[RELATED: ADF threatens legal action after college rejects student’s YAL chapter proposal]

The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court of New Jersey in January of 2020 and was settled in June.

The YAL chapter writes on its website that Montclair had treated its members unfairly  prior to legal action being taken. They had previously imposed a gag order on a member of the club and suspended him for breaking it, the chapter claims; the suspension was later reversed after pressure from national interest groups. The school also attempted to disrupt YAL’s distribution of pro-second amendment flyers.

When asked about the now-defunct rules, Elyse Toribio, a media relations coordinator at Montclair State told Campus Reform that “Montclair State University is committed to fostering an environment where different viewpoints can be expressed freely and peacefully, and where all voices have the opportunity to be heard.”