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Federal court sides with Schmidt in case against UW

LARAMIE - The U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming granted plaintiff Todd Schmidt a preliminary injunction Friday morning following the University of Wyoming's decision in December 2022 to ban him from tabling in the Wyoming Union breezeway.

U.S. Senior District Judge Nancy Freudenthal ruled Schmidt proved he would suffer irreparable harm and provided adequate grounds for his case. Following the release of the court's 20-page decision Friday, UW released a statement via email, acknowledging it will "comply with the terms of the preliminary injunction while considering whether to continue its defense and present further arguments in the case.

"... While the court found in this instance Pastor Schmidt's conduct was not harassment or discrimination, the university's right to regulate certain conduct by those tabling in the student union was recognized, and the university will continue to take lawful steps to protect the safety of students, employees and members of the public," the statement read.

Background

In September 2022, Artemis Langford, an openly transgender student, received national attention after joining the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority, which sparked conversations of identity around the country, as well as on the UW campus. Schmidt, an elder at the Laramie Faith Community Church and longtime participant in tabling at the UW student union breezeway, "disagrees with the propriety of transgender students joining sororities," court documents state.

On Dec. 2, 2022, Schmidt placed a sign at his table in the Wyoming Union that read "God created male and female and Artemis Langford is a male."The table quickly caught the attention of passersby and ultimately led to UW Dean of Students Ryan O'Neil asking Schmidt to remove the student's name from his sign.

Schmidt refused, but complied upon O'Neil threatening to call the University of Wyoming Police Department. He continued to speak to students for the remainder of the day after the incident.

UW President Ed Seidel sent an email message to the university community on Dec. 5, stating that Schmidt's interactions with students a few days prior were "not in obvious violation of UW policies." However, on Dec. 7, Seidel sent another message after various groups expressed disappointment in his initial statement.

According to court documents, a UW alumni group sent a letter in opposition to Seidel's initial statement, recounting other incidents of Schmidt allegedly yelling at and harassing students regarding sexual identity.The document further states: "The letter asked Seidel to ban Schmidt from tabling in the UW Union. They stated that if he did not do so, they would resign from alumni memberships, withhold donations to the University, and refuse to return to campus for future activities."

That same day, O'Neil notified Schmidt that his ability to reserve a table in the UW student union would be suspended until spring of 2024. This decision was based on a report from the university's Equal Opportunity Report and Response Office that stated Schmidt violated UW Regulation 4-2 (Discrimination and Harassment). According to the report, Schmidt then filed a motion for preliminary injunction from suspensions that would "bar him from access to a breezeway table in the UW Union or prevent him from expressing his views about the sex status of Artemis Langford," according to court documents.

The incident was not the first report of harassment from Schmidt toward students. UW officials state that they have warned Schmidt to not engage in a confrontational manner with those passing through the union.The university also states it has received documented complaints over the years from students that he "got in people's faces" while engaging in conversation, and even chased after those who were not interested in speaking with him. Schmidt states he never received word or warning from the university that students had complained.

Plaintiff and defendant arguments

Schmidt argues that his tabling in the Wyoming Union breezeway is "constitutionally protected expression," and that the area is reserved and protected for public forum. He additionally argues that UW's policies "violate the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by failing to provide fair notice that his behavior could lead to a ban from reserving tables in the Union Breezeway," according to court documents.

UW claims that Schmidt showed discriminatory and harassing conduct to a student of a protected class on Dec. 2, which they assert is not protected speech.The university is required to prohibit acts of discrimination against students and employees on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation in compliance with Title IX. Additionally, the university asserts that the student-union breezeway is a limited public forum and the nondiscrimination policy is a neutral restriction on Schmidt's speech.

Court ruling

The U.S. District Court analyzed several aspects of the case, including the difference between harassment and free speech in a university context and the extent of public forum granted within the student union breezeway.

Judge Freudenthal upheld that Schmidt's speech was not harassment, but rather protected free expression, and that the inclusion of Artemis Langford's name was necessary to express his opinion.

"Schmidt's speech was expressive, with the intent to convey a particular message. Schmidt mentions Artemis Langford by name, but that is unavoidable, as the debate revolves around the propriety of a particular biological male participating in an activity - joining a sorority - traditionally reserved for biological females. Schmidt does not misgender Langford to denigrate her, but to debate a public issue," the court document states.

"Here, Schmidt's speech is part of an earnest debate about gender identity, a matter of public importance," it adds.

The court upheld the university's claim that the Wyoming Union breezeway is a limited public forum, as tables require a reservation and are not open to the general public. However, the document adds that "the ultimate conclusion does not hinge on this finding because, as explained below, the Court finds that Schmidt experienced viewpoint discrimination, and viewpoint discrimination is not permissible in limited or designated public forums."

"Here, Schmidt wishes to express his viewpoint that Artemis Langford is a male and to debate the propriety of Langford's participation in a sorority.This is a viewpoint. The University counters that it allowed Schmidt to keep the remainder of his sign that did not contain Langford's name.

"However, without Langford's name, Schmidt is unable to fully express his views regarding Langford's sex. Presumably some of these students have views opposed to those of Schimdt and believe that Langford is female and belongs in a sorority.There is no indication that those students were prohibited from debating Schmidt or speaking Langford's name. Therefore, the University appears to be favoring one viewpoint over another."

This story was published on August 19, 2023.

 
 
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