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ASU Didn't Violate Jennifer Keeton's Free Speech Rights

By Robyn Hagan Cain on December 20, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

That didn’t take long.

Less than three weeks after hearing oral arguments in former graduate student Jennifer Keeton’s free speech rights appeal, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court decision that Augusta State University (ASU) did not run afoul of the Constitution in removing Keeton from the school’s graduate program in counseling.

After completing her first year in the Counselor Education Program at ASU, a public university, school officials asked Keeton to participate in a remediation plan addressing what the faculty perceived as deficiencies in her "ability to be a multiculturally competent counselor, particularly with regard to working with gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning (GLBTQ) populations." Keeton refused, and filed a civil rights lawsuit against the university, claiming that the remediation plan infringed on her free exercise and free speech rights.

Last week, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the remediation program did not violate Keeton's civil rights.

The appellate court found that the evidence in the record did not support Keeton's claim that ASU officials imposed the remediation plan because of her views on homosexuality. Instead, Eleventh Circuit said the evidence supported the school's position that the remediation plan was imposed because Keeton expressed an intent to impose her personal religious views on her clients, in violation of the American Counseling Association (ACA) Code of Ethics; the purpose of the remediation plan was to teach Keeton how to effectively counsel GLBTQ clients in accordance with the ACA Code of Ethics.

The Eleventh Circuit determined that ASU's remediation plan was neutral, generally applicable, and crafted to Keeton's particular weakness as a counselor, noting, "In seeking to evade the curricular requirement that she not impose her moral values on clients, Keeton is looking for preferential, not equal, treatment."

We feel confident that the Alliance Defense Fund, which is representing Keeton, will continue pressing this issue, either for en banc or Supreme Court review. Do you think Jennifer Keeton could convince a different group of judges that ASU violated her free speech rights?

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