Woodhull Joins Amicus Brief to Protect College Student Whistleblowers’ First Amendment rights

Woodhull Freedom Foundation joined a coalition of national free-speech organizations led by the Foundation for Individual Rights, calling for the federal appeals court to reverse a ruling on a case involving three Valencia College students punished for objecting to a college policy forcing them to undergo vaginal ultrasound tests as part of a class exercise.

A friend-of-the-court brief filed with the Eleventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on behalf of four free-expression groups asks the court to correct the district judge’s erroneous conclusion that complaints about college curriculum are subject to near-total institutional control under the Supreme Court’s Hazelwood standard. The amicus brief was signed by the Woodhull Freedom Foundation, SPLC, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

The case, Milward v. Shaheen, involves a legal challenge by former Valencia College students Melissa Milward, Elyse Ugalde and Ashley Rose, who were taking a course in sonography when their instructor ordered them to submit to being transvaginal ultrasound test subjects for their classmates. The students objected to the practice on several occasions, including in a departmental questionnaire specifically designed to elicit any reservations about taking part in the procedure. College officials responded by threatening to lower the students’ grades and interfere with their employment prospects; under pressure, Milward and Ugalde submitted to the examinations, but Rose dropped out. The students assert that punishing them for expressing viewpoints critical of a college policy violated the First Amendment.

“The requirement that you submit to having your body violated without your consent as part of a class exercise is barbaric and horrifying, and in violation of the individual’s human right to personal autonomy.  It is tantamount to rape and, if this ruling is allowed to stand, all forms of redress are denied to those victims,” said Ricci Levy, President and CEO of the Woodhull Freedom Foundation.  “We wouldn’t allow a law that made it illegal for anyone to claim they were raped and yet that is exactly what this ruling accomplishes.”

While this case centers on freedom of speech, it is vitally important that we not lose sight of the fact that this speech, whether on a college campus or not, was about forced penetration by a foreign object into the three plaintiff’s vaginas – for a college class exercise.  And that their complaints about the practice and their refusal to allow themselves to be penetrated by the vaginal ultrasound led to repeated threats of failing grades all the way up to expulsion.

The Woodhull Freedom Foundation is a non-profit organization that works to advance the recognition of sexual freedom, gender equality, and family diversity.  Woodhull is concerned that affirmance of the district court’s ruling in the instant case could jeopardize the rights of students to speak out on a wide range of issues, and could further encourage unbridled censorship by university officials.

The brief was prepared and filed with the assistance of volunteer legal counsel Lawrence G. Walters of Walters Law Group in Longwood, Florida, who specializes in First Amendment and individual-rights cases.

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