The judge in the Sklar v. Clough federal lawsuit ruled against Tech’s motion to reconsider on July 23, finally bringing to an end to the lawsuit filed by former students over alleged violations of the First Amendment on campus. The plaintiffs, Orit Sklar and Ruth Maholtra, are Tech alumnae who originally filed the suit in March of 2006 while they were both still enrolled.
Three of the four policies challenged were found to be unconstitutional in their state at the beginning of the lawsuit, although by the time of the ruling Tech had brought them into compliance, thus were not ordered to take any further action.
Senior U.S. District Judge Owen Forrester, a 1961 Tech graduate, presided over the case. He avoided ruling on the constitutionality of one of the policies, the guidelines governing the usage of student activity fees and specifically a then-present rule against all funding for political and religious activities, due to the plaintiffs inability to demonstrate the liability of any of the specific defendants named in the suit.
Student activity fees, which come from the mandatory fees paid by all full-time students each semester that they are enrolled, are distributed by the Student Government Association (SGA) primarily to student organizations.
The plaintiffs say they tried to resolve their differences without a lawsuit but to no avail.
“The federal lawsuit was our last resort. In fact, we and others raised this issue was raised countless times with various leaders within SGA, as well as higher level administrators. For months, these leaders refused even to acknowledge our concerns, attempted to explain away the discriminatory policies, or stubbornly asserted that there was nothing wrong with the policies because they had been approved by GT Legal,” Malhotra said.
But according to Mitch Keller, graduate student body president at the time the lawsuit was filed and an active member of the SGA’s Graduate Student Senate, changes to the student activity fee guidelines were in the course of happening anyway and were not a response to the lawsuit.
“[Members of SGA] had begun undertaking a review of the student activity fee policy prior to the lawsuit being filed,” Keller said. “I think student government here has historically been very responsive to students questions and concerns and I saw no indication that the plaintiffs made any effort to go through the channels with us to resolve the concerns that they had.”
Another of the challenged items was contained in the Safe Space program, whose mission is to provide a supportive environment for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students. Contained within the training manual for this program was a list of religions and statements describing the tolerance of many of those religions towards homosexuality based on an interpretation of religious texts. Sklar and Malhotra argued that including such material in the training manual constituted the Institute advancing certain religious beliefs over others.
When the judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on this count in April, Tech filed a motion to reconsider based on certain new facts: first, that the program had been turned over to the control of the Pride Alliance, a student organization; second, they argued that all of this material had been removed from the manual last year prior to the judge ruling on the parties’ motions for summary judgments. However, the plaintiffs were able to show that the material was still present on the Safe Space web site and that Safe Space was still listed as a part of Tech’s Office of Diversity Programs.
In addition, Sklar and Maholtra challenged Tech’s Speech Code and Speech Zone at the time of the filing the lawsuit. Because the policies had been revised and the plaintiffs had no further complaints the judge ordered nothing further.
Although the plaintiffs say they have been subject to a nearly endless amount of personal attacks and hate mail, they are convinced that filing this lawsuit was the right decision.
“We simply have different ideas about public policy, sexual morality, religion, and culture. We should have the same right to express those views as anyone else on campus.” Sklar said.
The Institute declined to be interviewed for this story.