Christian Right Legal Group Invents ‘Free Speech’ Case

Christian Right Legal Group Invents ‘Free Speech’ Case March 5, 2014

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.

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  • So let me get this straight: The money was offered with conditions attached; the school, unwilling to meet the conditions, politely turned down the money; the donor filed a lawsuit claiming their rights were violated?

    Hoo, boy. If they are frothing at the mouth now, wait until a judge slaps them down hard. Or better yet, sides with the group and creates precedent. I would be happy to pony up a few thousand to donate to a church on the condition of putting up a sign that reads, “God allows neither reason nor rational thought.” With this precedent, they would have no choice but to accept the money and put up the sign, right? That is how it works, after all.

  • “The McCracken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee

    About his shadowy sides: above him swell

    Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;

    And far away into the sickly light,

    From many a wondrous grot and secret cell

    Unnumbered and enormous polypi

    Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.

    There hath he lain for ages and will lie

    Battening upon huge sea-worms in his sleep,

    Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;

    Then once by man and angels to be seen,

    In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.”

    With apologies to Alfred ‘Maud’ Tennyson

  • Whoever manages donations at Purdue should be fired. They should have taken the donation, and promised to display the plaque for three years. Then created a place for such plaques, as an area of public speech, where everyone making a $12,500 donation gets to put their own message. “Messages from our donors.” Do that right, and everyone is happy, and donations increase.

  • They should accept the donation and then use that to pay for the legal defense of this silly suit.

  • Alverant

    So if I write an editorial for their magazine/newsletter/whatever I can sue them if they don’t print it?

  • Chiroptera

    I’ve never heard of a donor being able to choose the message to put on a plaque. Is that a common thing?

  • John Pieret

    The only way that comes close to flying is if PU allows plaques for other donors that are expressive (more than just the names of the donors, date and the like … say, hororing those who have used science to free us from superstition and ignorance). Then they might have created a limited public forum and would have to allow equal access without content discrimination.

  • cswella

    Are universities unique in how donations are accepted? If not, does this mean that if the lawsuit goes through, any publicly funded organization/building can have donations sent in with any message required and they have to accept it?

    So, for example, if I donate to the local high school or a local sports stadium? Would it even cover any organization that receives government funding (churches, charities, etc)?

    If any of this is true, yet another example of christians not thinking their own shit through.

  • In fact, they should have created two cases. “Messages from our religious donors,” and “messages from our secular donors.” Then used the competition between the two as a way to goad alumni for money.

  • raven

    They should have taken the donation, and promised to display the plaque for three years. Then created a place for such plaques, as an area of public speech, where everyone making a $12,500 donation gets to put their own message. “Messages from our donors.” Do that right, and everyone is happy, and donations increase.

    <bYou are on to something here!!!

    My family has donated a lot more than $12.5 K to two universities, albeit over a number of years. Without any plaque or the slightest desire for one.

    OTOH, if they are going to do that, no problem. I’ve got plenty of sayings.

    A person needs gods like a fish needs a bicycle

    Hitchens: Religion poisons everything!!!

    Hitchens: Xianity lost its best defense when they lost the power of the stack of firewood, noose, and gun.

    Sagan: Science as a defense. “The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.”

    I can see that their public free speech plaque area would soon have an enormous collection of political and religious inscriptions. And the university would have a lot of money for science.

  • dugglebogey

    I’m suing them because I offered to give them $25 and a plaque that says “Fuck the Police” and they refused to accept it.

  • wscott

    @ John Pieret #7: Re the limited public forum argument, that was my thought too. If so, that would be pretty easy for the complainants to prove – show me the pictures of other plaques bearing secular messages. If not…buh bye.

  • cuervocuero

    Sponsored graffitti.

  • Ben P

    Whoever manages donations at Purdue should be fired. They should have taken the donation, and promised to display the plaque for three years. Then created a place for such plaques, as an area of public speech, where everyone making a $12,500 donation gets to put their own message. “Messages from our donors.” Do that right, and everyone is happy, and donations increase.

    If something like that existed already is the only way the McCracken’s win. Something could exist by implication, like if the university has a history of allowing donors to express whatever they wish on a plaque, but I doubt that’s the case.

  • jnorris

    Should the McCracken’s win, I like rturpin’s idea at #3. But I would ask a Purdue sports rival to donate and demand a plaque phrasing the rival’s teams.

  • vmanis1

    I guess I can’t see why the university rejected the donation. Donors often give money with peculiar entailments: back in the 1960s, a rich donor named Leon Ladner, late in his life, gifted the University of BC with the funds to build a bell tower (actually, a carillon tower). Ladner had given other funds to the university before for less foolish purposes, but this seemed so frivolous that an outcry arose about this tower, which the student newspaper called `Ladner’s last erection’. The university took the entirely sensible position that building this tower would not cost the university a cent, and therefore accepted the donation. (I was in, I think, the second graduating class that walked into the convocation assembly to the carillon strains of Elgar’s first `Pomp and Circumstance’ march.)

    Donor plaques and similar recognition awards (e.g., naming a building after Bill Gates, as several universities have done with their computer science buildings) are always considered as the act of the donor, and therefore one wants to eliminate only those things that are illegal or obscene[*], or cast individuals or groups in a bad light. Here, a simple act could have made it clear that this was the donor’s speech, not the universities, by including the offending phrase in quotation marks, and placing a small plaque nearby that indicates that this is the donor’s, rather than the university’s position. Having a written policy that would allow similar quotes from, e.g., Hitchens, would make this even clearer.

    [*] As a devoted non-user of Windows, I will refrain from commenting on the propriety of naming a building after Bill Gates.

  • Wylann

    John Pieret@7: If this is the case, I would happily donate to some secular/atheist organizations to get a competing message or three out there. It would be interesting to compare the reactions.

    Let me just check and make sure the Liberty Institute filed and Amicus breif in support of those donations by atheist organizations that were turned down in other places……

  • moishe

    I’ve got $10,000 and a plaque reading “FSM, bless his noodly appendage” in case the McCrackens win.

  • DysgraphicProgrammer

    How much do I need to donate to get “Perdue Teams Suck” on a plaque and force Perdue to display it? How about “Perdue Students are Great in the Sack”?

  • Ichthyic

    The university took the entirely sensible position that building this tower would not cost the university a cent

    that’s a rather shortsighted position then, or you read it wrong, since donations rarely cover the total building costs, for one, NEVER cover the maintenance costs, for two, and now there is a segment of university land (a very limited resourced) covered by a useless gesture to vanity, for three.

    either your logic, or theirs, is a complete fail.

  • steve84

    Are the insane? That would mean atheists could donate money to churches and demand that atheist messages be displayed on their billboards. At least if the law were equally applied to everyone, which of course never happens in America.

  • Moggie

    So, if the university caves and accepts the plaque without litigation, McCracken wins.

    If the university goes to court, and loses, McCracken wins.

    If the university goes to court, and wins… McCracken still wins, in a sense, because he gets to play the ever-popular “persecuted Christian” role, while the university will find their income from Christian alumni falls.

  • Ryan Jean

    How they *should* respond:

    “We at Purdue University must officially decline the merit-less demands of the McCrackens to display their preferred message under our banner. In addition to the entanglement issue previously stated, the very fact of a litigation threat over an imaginary “right” to have one’s personal message officially supported by a public university clearly demonstrates that the McCracken’s mentality is at odds with the high ethical standards we have at Purdue. The threat of baseless litigation, if followed through, will be immediately met with a counter-suit which will demonstrate clearly the lack of legal merit. Further, the filing of such an action will open up the McCracken’s counsel to the possibility of individual legal sanctions under Rule 11, an outcome which we will aggressively pursue.”

  • Persecution has become so central to Christian faith that it seems one cannot be a True Christian™ if they are not being persecuted. Just today I saw an ad for a Christian dating site that read something like “you didn’t suffer 4,000 years of persecution to join”.

  • cry4turtles

    Wonder how the Y will feel when they must accept my donated “brick” to the Young Mens Christian Association enscribed “god is pretend “?

  • had3

    Yes it’s juvenile, but I was so sure the name would be Phil McCraken.

  • jeroenmetselaar

    On the other hand….

    If they win this suit you can get your message displayed on a churches property after a small donation.

  • I read this and immediatley thought of a certain American Legion Post in Morton Grove, IL.

  • dingojack

    jeroenmetselaar – why send a donation? If this MacCraken wins, institutions will have to let you put a plaques emblazoned with any idiot thought that crosses your mind* whether you donate or not. Remember MacCraken offered a piddling amount of cash, which the Purdue refused to accept but he still wants to hang his plaque for services not rendered..



    * I’d favour forcing McDonald to prominently display a sign saying: ‘I need TP for my BUNG-hole’

  • peterh

    So, then, at Purdue, at least, you can’t buy free speech? The irony is delicious.

  • had3

    Well, you can make your donation and say anything you want, your speech isn’t curtailed at all. You just can’t ask anyone else to memorialize your speech and post it because you made a donation.

  • hunter

    Now that I’ve stopped laughing, I can only conclude that Liberty Counsel must be desperate for money. I can’t see any other reason to push such a patently ridiculous claim.

    Hope their client has deep pockets, because no one’s going to get anything from the University.

  • I’m sure that there are numerous non-religious statement on plaques at lots of universities and elsewhere. Of course the fact that they were likely placed there without any regard for donations by anyone will escape these idiots.

    You know what, I think? I think that the “Sign of the Cross” is dated and, well, sorta insulting to a supposed saviour. For a long time I thought that it would have been interesting if JESUS had been hanged (as opposed to “hung”; one would have to ask his Apostolic fanbois about that issue) instead of crucified. Then it would be the sign of the noose, made by starting with the right fist, with index finger protruding, circles the head, starting from the back of the neck, right-to-left and after completing the circle, jerking up while the signer cants their head to one side (and that choice alone would cause a schism) while sticking out one’s tongue and making a “gack” noise.

    Conversely, if he had been stoned to death, the appropriate sign of veneration might be a lot simpler. It would involve simply making a fist and punching oneself in the head.

  • caseloweraz

    The message accompanying my donation, presuming Dr. McCracken’s lawsuit has a chance of succeeding (it doesn’t), would be “Bong hits for Jesus.”