There’s an odd situation going on at Purdue University after a family donated $12,500 to the engineering school but wanted a plaque at the facility that honored “those who seek to better the world through the understanding of God’s physical laws.” The school said no, fearing possible litigation over the plaque’s religious message.
“We have a great deal of understanding and sympathy for the disappointment of the McCracken family. If we had confidence that the courts would find this private speech as the donor’s counsel argues, then we would agree immediately — and strongly.
“But given the facts here, our status as a public institution, and the hopelessly muddled state of jurisprudence in this particular area, we could fully expect lengthy and expensive litigation that would wipe out the value of this donation many times over, and we just don’t think that’s advisable for either the donor or the university. Still, we remain open to continued discussions, as we’d much prefer to be in the mode of expressing gratitude, not disagreement, to our donors.”
But now the Liberty Institute, one of the C-list Christian right legal groups, is threatening their own lawsuit if they don’t allow the plaque to go up claiming it’s a violation of the family’s freedom of speech:
“The First Amendment protects Dr. McCracken’s right to refer to ‘God’s physical laws,’ ” said McCracken’s attorney, Robert K. Kelner of Covington & Burling LLP…Kelner said McCracken was “very disappointed” by the statement.
“The university is essentially giving voices that would ban even private references to ‘God’ a heckler’s veto here,” Kelner said. “In so many words, the statement suggests that Dr. McCracken’s pledge was not large enough to justify the hassle of defending his speech in court. But, of course, it is precisely the university’s decision to violate Dr. McCracken’s First Amendment rights that would lead to potentially lengthy and expensive litigation.”
In their letter to the university, the group said this:
Please let us know by March 5, 2014, if you are open to discussing a potential resolution. If not, Dr. McCracken has instructed us to commence litigation to preserve the McCrackens’ First Amendment right to reference “God’s physical laws” on the plaque. We note that, if this matter proceeds to litigation and Dr. McCracken prevails, the University will be responsible for his attorneys’ fees.
Now I don’t know if the university would have been sued over the plaque (frankly, that would be silly; everyone knows that such plaques are the speech of donors rather than the university), but I know damn well that the McCracken family doesn’t have a free speech case here. Purdue should just reject the donation, which is tiny anyway, and be done with it. No one has a “right” to donate money to a university and get a message on a building.