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Federal court paves way for anti-LGBTQ preacher's return to UW student union

An individual dressed in black holds a protest sign that reads "I shouldn't have to be this afraid to be here. UW used to be somewhere I felt safe."
Jeff Victor
Wyoming Public Media
Silent protesters gathered in UW's Simpson Plaza, Dec. 7, 2022, urging UW to ban anti-LGBTQ preacher Todd Schmidt after he targeted an individual trans student with a banner in the union. The U.S. District Court of Wyoming ruled Friday that Schmidt's banner was "not harassment or discriminatory conduct."

A Christian preacher banned from the University of Wyoming (UW) student union for alleged "discrimination and harassment" against a transgender student will once again be allowed to table there.

The U.S. District Court of Wyoming granted a preliminary injunction Friday, Aug. 18, allowing Laramie Faith Community Church Elder Todd Schmidt to return to campus while his lawsuit against the university proceeds. The injunction comes less than two weeks before the start of the fall semester.

The case has not been officially decided, but the preliminary injunction signals that Schmidt's lawsuit enjoys a "likelihood of success" with the federal court.

"Because Schmidt's speech is protected free expression and he experienced unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination, we find Schmidt has made a strong showing that he is likely to prevail on the merits of his claim," the court writes in its order granting Schmidt's return to the union.

The case has pitted Schmidt's free speech claims against the university's allegations of harassment and discrimination.

A well-known preacher is banned from tabling 

Known to students as "Bible Guy" or "Creationist Guy," Schmidt has tabled regularly in the student union for more than a decade. His spot in the union is along the main thoroughfare, a public area heavily trafficked between classes and during the lunch hour.

Schmidt talks with students who are passing by, pitching them on his version of Christianity, young earth creationism, vaccine conspiracism and other topics. He often has books and DVDs on display, as well as a large banner hanging on the front of his table.

In early December, he displayed a banner that read "God created male and female and Artemis Langford is a male." Langford is a transgender student at UW, and the first transgender student to be inducted into the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority. Her induction was highlighted by the student newspaper and then picked up by right-wing outlets, catapulting Langford into the national spotlight.

On the day Schmidt flew his banner, students, including some members of Langford's sorority, blocked the banner and argued with Schmidt. Eventually UW Dean of Students Ryan O’Neil told Schmidt to remove the student's name from his banner. After some argument, he did. Schmidt was allowed to table for the remainder of the day with the rest of the banner intact.

In the week that followed, there was outcry from students, faculty and alumni, who argued Schmidt should not have been allowed to stay after "harassing" a student.

UW banned Schmidt from tabling in the student union for one year. A few months later, he sued the university, claiming it had violated his First Amendment right to free speech by discriminating against him specifically because of his viewpoint.

Court rules Schmidt's anti-trans banner was "not harassment or discriminatory conduct"

UW argued it did not engage in viewpoint discrimination and instead, was carrying out its ethical and legal responsibility to prohibit harassment.

The U.S. District Court of Wyoming has not issued a final ruling, but it has granted Schmidt the preliminary injunction he asked for. That preliminary injunction allows Schmidt to once again table in the union. It also sheds light on how the rest of the case is likely to go.

According to the order, to win a preliminary injunction, a person typically has to show four things:

  1. That their case has "a likelihood of success on the merits" — meaning they have a decent chance of winning the case.
  2. That they face "a likely threat of irreparable harm."
  3. That the harm they allegedly face "outweighs any harm" to the party they're suing.
  4. That granting an injunction "is in the public interest."

But Schmidt's claim is about an alleged First Amendment violation, so as the court writes in its motion, "the first factor, likelihood of success on the merits, will often be the determinate factor."
Essentially, proving the first implies the rest, given how strongly American law defends free speech rights.

And according to the court, Schmidt successfully demonstrated his "likelihood of success on the merits."

"In navigating the line between whether speech is harassment or protected free speech, courts have also considered whether the speech concerns a matter of public concern and whether it targets a particular student," the court writes, before exploring various other cases involving alleged racial discrimination and intentional misgendering, especially in schools and on college campuses. "Here, the facts do not demonstrate harassment under the Davis standard, i.e., harassment so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it denies the victims' equal access to an institution's resources and opportunities."

The court rules that Schmidt's banner, despite using Langford's name, was not directed specifically at her.

"Schmidt engaged in tense debate with students regarding the propriety of a biological male joining a sorority," the order states. "He did not engage directly with Artemis Langford. His sign was pure speech and not conduct. Furthermore, Schmidt's speech does not meet the University's own definition of discrimination or harassment. There is no evidence Langford suffered any adverse consequences or experienced interference with academic or work performance."

Nor did Schmidt's speech interfere with the educational mission of the university, the court finds.

"Here Schmidt's speech is part of an earnest debate about gender identity, a matter of public importance," the court writes, adding this speech is essential to self-government and protected even more fiercely than other speech. "This is particularly true on college campuses because they are the 'marketplace of ideas.' While elementary and public schools prioritize the inculcation of social values, universities seek to encourage inquiry and the challenging of a priori assumptions."

UW could drop its case

The university responded to the court's order in a public statement, saying it will respect the order and that it might back off of pushing the case further.

"While the University of Wyoming is disappointed in today's ruling, it will comply with the terms of the preliminary injunction while considering whether to continue its defense and present further arguments in the case," the statement reads. "The university believed its one-year suspension of plaintiff Todd Schmidt's ability to reserve a table in the Wyoming Union breezeway was appropriate and lawful, especially considering his prior misconduct and the university's legal obligations."

In its own filings, UW alleged that Schmidt frequently violated union tabling rules by leaving his table and confronting students. The complaints about Schmidt were so numerous that UW started recording them.

"On April 18, 2022, a student complained to the University that Plaintiff 'got in people's faces' while trying to talk to them," the university alleged. "On April 30, 2022, a student complained that Plaintiff ran after him when he refused to talk to him. On November 11, 2022, a student staff member complained that Plaintiff approached him (i.e., left his table) to confront him about his shirt. Various individuals have complained about how Plaintiff treats female members of the University community. One staff member reported Plaintiff telling her that he does not respect female authority."

The court's order does say UW has the right and ability to prohibit harassment and discrimination, meaning the university policy banning such could remain intact. However, the order declares that Schmidt's December banner message constitutes protected speech and may not be banned.

The UW semester begins Monday, Aug. 28. UW President Ed Seidel has said he will be making recommendations to the UW Board of Trustees this fall about how the institution should navigate its free speech obligations and concerns.

Jeff is a part-time reporter for Wyoming Public Media, as well as the owner and editor of the Laramie Reporter, a free online news source providing in-depth and investigative coverage of local events and trends.
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