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Anti-LGBTQ preacher wins free speech lawsuit against UW

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 Wednesday, Dec. 7. UW banned an anti-LGBTQ preacher from tabling in the student union after he targeted an individual student by name. The preacher sued and won his right to return.

A Laramie preacher has won a federal lawsuit against the University of Wyoming (UW). He had sued the university for infringing on his constitutionally protected free speech rights.

Last December, Laramie Faith Community Church Elder Todd Schmidt displayed an anti-trans banner in the UW student union, identifying an individual transgender student by name. The university banned him from tabling for one year, alleging that he was harassing the student.

Schmidt sued UW on First Amendment grounds. He won a preliminary injunction that has already let him return to the student union. Last week, both parties agreed to a judge's order, bringing the case to a close.

UW can no longer censor Schmidt's views on the sexual identity of individual students. It can however continue to punish him if he violates union policies in other ways, such as by talking to students who don't want to talk to him.

Schmidt had asked the court to declare those policies unconstitutional, but he lost that particular argument. UW's discrimination policies still stand; the lawsuit simply demonstrates that Schmidt's behavior did not violate them.

"(Judge Nancy) Freudenthal's preliminary ruling was that UW infringed upon Schmidt's First Amendment rights and that his public misgendering of a transgender UW student did not constitute illegal harassment," UW writes in a news release. "While the court found that the university has the right to regulate certain conduct by those tabling in the student union, the court concluded that Schmidt's conduct did not constitute unlawful discrimination or harassment."

UW will also pay Schmidt $35,000 for attorney fees and expenses.

The lawsuit played out against the backdrop of a campus-wide discussion on free speech and transgender acceptance. Schmidt displayed his banner last December during a week in which two unrelated queer-centric events were distributed by agitators. A separate federal lawsuit sought to boot the same transgender student named on Schmidt's sign from her sorority; that lawsuit was decided in the student's favor. Just last week, a conservative student group hosted a speech by Riley Gaines, a former collegiate swimmer who advocates against transgender inclusion in women's sports.

Meanwhile, the university has been revamping its own stated commitment to free speech. During a recent UW Board of Trustees meeting, President Ed Seidel clarified that the university is committed to political neutrality and will not enforce restrictions on hate speech.

"There are legal limitations to free expression on our campus," Seidel reiterated in a letter to campus. "But feeling uncomfortable or offended — and, in many cases, even feeling unsafe — is not, in and of itself, grounds for stopping speech."

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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