Speaker defends Howell, freedom of speech through First Amendment

Aspiring students and school of law professors filled the auditorium at the Law Building Tuesday to listen to Gregory Baylor, senior counsel member of the Alliance Defense Fund, a servant organization that fights for First Amendment rights.

The organization provides legal services to faculty, staff and students across universities to promote religious freedom. The group defended Professor Kenneth Howell last summer, who was in attendance.

Howell was dismissed by the University when a student complained about Howell giving a ‘hate speech’ in his class, Introduction to Catholicism. He was later reinstated for Fall 2010.

The Howell v. The University of Illinois case sparked debate among civil rights groups.

“It should have never happened in the first place. Students are going to complain about teachers, and they have a right to complain about teachers. But I submit that it was wrong for (it) to get as far as it did, for the University to take … action against Dr. Howell,” Baylor said.

Since Howell started teaching the course in 2001, he has generally received positive feedback from his students, Baylor said.

“(There has been) no (previous) complaint he pressured students to embrace Roman Catholic religious beliefs in order to get a good grade or pass the class,” Baylor said.

Sofia Khoubaeva, law student, said it is interesting to be able to apply legal principles to situations that affect the University.

“(We are) here at this University … to see where it is going and which legal theory you could combat incidents (with) that were described today,” Khoubaeva said.

During the discussion session, other events were brought into the spotlight, including Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, which took place last year on campus and across the country.

Baylor said the line between the separation of believing and expressing opinion has been blurred. The question in discussion was “Does freedoms of speech protect hate speech?”

Other cases profiled included Keeton v. Augusta State University and Christen Legal Society v. Martinez. Both of these highly discussed cases involved students or organizations being denied the expression of their beliefs.

Only three cases were detailed during the presentation, but there is an increasing trend of battles in the courtroom around a university’s struggle to maintain an appropriate level of free speech on campus, Baylor said.

“The trend toward the limit of free speech has (been) becoming more alarming than I had realized. It happens over a few enough years in small enough increments, but you don’t really notice,” said Michael Hodnett, law student. “It’s something good to bring notice and help me realize something has to be done.”