Campus preachers seeking to file lawsuits against a university are just a few mouse clicks away from finding free lawyers – and the Web site offering this pro bono legal assistance for preachers who feel their First Amendment rights have been violated, officialstreetpreachers.com, has been advertised on the signs of preachers known to frequent USF.
As the investigation of an assault complaint filed by a student against a preacher on the USF campus continues, the seeming ease with which preachers can acquire cost-free counsel underscores questions as to whether they pose a legal
Catch-22 for the University: Preachers kicked off campuses have been known to sue said universities and win, but students attending institutions who feel they’ve been slandered by a preacher could sue the university, too.
USF administrators and University Police said no preachers have sued, but the volatile legal situation still raises questions as to whether terms like fag, homo, slut and whore, which some preachers are said to have directed toward students, are protected by free speech or are considered un-protected slander.
Deanna Shulman, an attorney at Thomas & LoCicero PL, a law firm specializing in First Amendment and media issues, said the difference between free speech and slander depended heavily on context.
If a desultory term is used in the heat of debate, for example, it’s unlikely it would constitute slander or libel. But if a term is used as a statement of fact to describe an individual, the legality is gray.
“To live in a free society you have to have a tough enough skin to deal with these things that are part of the spirited debate,” Shulman said.
Shulman then clarified the distinction between legal and civil restrictions on speech, saying that an individual could be held liable on a civil level for speech that the First Amendment allows.
“It may be defamatory to call somebody a whore, but it is not something that we prohibit,” she said.
This application of the law would apply in the contexts of assault and defamation, she said, as they’re two forms of speech that can be punished after the fact.
Insidious speech, like yelling ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater and fighting words, she said, are not protected.
Shulman also made clear that universities have the right to regulate the time, place and manner of speech, but that a university cannot impose content-based restrictions; that is, barring speakers from discussing certain things. Even-handedness is also important in a university protecting itself against liability, she said, as the regulation of speakers needs to be applied equally to all.
Nate Kellum, an attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), the organization linked to from originalstreetpreachers.com, said he steps in when regulation is not applied equally.
Kellum said the Christian and right-to-life-oriented ADF looked for “opportunities where a Christian can express her opinions just like anybody else,” when deliberating over representing an individual in court, and that the legal team was concerned when a Christian couldn’t.
He was not aware of any cases involving ADF and USF, and said it was unlikely the group would take up a case involving accusations of name-calling or assault.
“We’re not seeking the right for people to use unflattering adjectives,” he said.
“We’re seeking the right of people being able to express their Christian opinion. It would be difficult to make a blanket statement, but if something involved individual name-calling, that’s something we don’t participate in.”
Still, Kellum said the definition of “acceptable” between name-calling could become blurred when part of communicating one’s religious perspective.
Throughout the years, Kellum has handled between 20 and 30 cases involving preachers who were kicked off of campuses. He said that most cases resulted favorably for the preachers.
Generally, he said, the law rules in favor of the preachers because public areas on campuses are traditionally open to the public.
“The basic rule of thumb is if you have a right to walk there, you have a right to talk there,” he said.
If a university loses the case, it can be costly, as lawsuits filed under the statute dealing with free speech violations require the government agency to pay for the court costs and legal fees of the plaintiff, the person who sued.
This is exactly what happened with a case the ADF filed against the University of Arkansas in 2006.
The Federal District Court ordered the university to pay $33,000 for legal fees and the cost to pursue the trial after it enacted a policy requiring outside speakers to acquire a permit giving three days’ notice before speaking in public areas. Non-student speakers such as preachers were also limited to speaking only five times per year, and could not frequent the mall between the student union and library – where most speakers congregate – the day before finals.
The Court ruled the five-day limit was unconstitutional, according to a University of Arkansas spokesman.
Ken Gullette, director of media relations for USF, said the University recognizes the risk for liability, but that “the University tries to balance the right to free speech against the disruption of key operations.”
Like Shulman and Kellum, Gullette treated the issue of name-calling as a gray area.
“It’s all unclear what’s crossing the line,” he said. “These are jealously guarded rights that people have of free speech…if the University is negligent in trying to maintain a safe environment, (it’s) possibly liable.”
He said USF is watching to see what happens with the assault complaint, and that the administration spoke with preachers and asked them to behave respectfully, but said that if the preachers continue to cross the line, administrators will seek legal council.
The student who filed a complaint against John M. Kranert on Oct. 31 for allegedly charging at her with a fist cocked before calling her a ‘whore’ said she will not file a civil suit against the University.
Kranert was arrested Oct. 13 for trespassing in Hillsborough County, and the case is scheduled for a non-jury trial Dec. 19.
The Miami-Dade County Clerk of Court’s Web site also lists a John M. Kranert with the same date of birth – Dec 17, 1965 – as the John M. Kranert accused of assault as having been convicted of loitering, petty larceny, trespassing, drug paraphernalia and cocaine possession and burglary of an unoccupied dwelling.