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Waubonsee paid $132K to settle free-speech lawsuit

SUGAR GROVE – Waubonsee Community College this week settled a federal free speech lawsuit for $132,000 to pay legal fees, costs and damages to anti-gay activists Wayne Lela and John McCartney, Lela and McCartney’s attorney stated in a news release. Under the terms of the out-of-court settlement, Lela and McCartney will be able to distribute fliers at Waubonsee, according to the statement. Lela and McCartney belong to Heterosexuals Organized for a Moral Environment, or HOME.

The settlement Wednesday followed a federal judge’s ruling in January against the community college that found Lela and McCartney’s free speech rights were violated when they were not allowed to distribute fliers at the Sugar Grove campus.

In a statement, Waubonsee officials said they used federal mediation to reach an amicable settlement that allows the group access to the campus in accordance with the college’s standard operating procedures that call for the group to enter into a contract for use of the facility. It is the same contract required for other visitors seeking to use the campus.

“We are pleased that a mutually agreeable resolution to the campus access issue has been reached,” Waubonsee spokesman Jim Sibley said. “Waubonsee has always been, and will continue to be, committed to full compliance with the law.”

One of the men’s attorneys, Whitman Brisky, called the settlement a victory for free speech rights.

“The college was preventing our people from speaking there,” Brisky said. “They just did not like what they had to say. That’s pretty clear.”

Lela and McCartney had regularly handed out fliers on college campuses to raise awareness of what they believe are the moral and health dangers of homosexual intercourse, Brisky said. They had previously be allowed on the Sugar Grove campus, but Waubonsee officials denied their request to return in 2014, claiming the content of their message violated the school’s nondiscrimination policy. U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman ruled the college engaged in “purposeful unconstitutional suppression of speech” when it denied Lela and McCartney’s request to distribute leaflets in 2014.

“Allowing plaintiffs to exercise their First Amendment rights on WCC’s campus does not amount to the college endorsing [the] plaintiff’s views or speech,” Gettleman wrote in an opinion he issued.

Even if some would consider Lela and McCartney’s fliers to be hate speech against the gay community, Brisky said it is still protected speech.

“We have Waubonsee and other public colleges trying to get away with that, even though the law is clear,” Brisky said. “Hate speech is still protected by the First Amendment. Being on campus giving out leaflets is the same First Amendment that guarantees the press free speech.”

Brisky said Waubonsee’s restrictions reflect other attempts to curb free speech on college campuses and universities.

“We were able to beat that back and – hopefully – produce some room for a variety of ideas on campus,” Brisky said.

Brisky and Noel Sterett of Chicago-based Mauck & Baker LLC assisted The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, in its defense of Lela and McCartney’s constitutional rights.

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