Montana State University Faces Lawsuit for Punishing Views on Transgender Lifestyles

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Montana State University is facing a lawsuit after allegedly suspending a student from campus for confiding in his instructor about being “uncomfortable with transgender lifestyles.”

A lawsuit has been filed against Montana State University (MSU) for violating Title IX, as well as the First Amendment rights of a former student, Erik Powell. A federal judge ordered the case to go on trial in a ruling that was made on Friday.

According to the court summary, Powell had confided in his instructor, Katharine Kujawa, in a private meeting that was held in her office regarding transgenders.

“Powell was uncomfortable with transgender lifestyles [and] opted not to speak in class,” said the court summary, “After class on May 24, 2016, Powell spoke with Kujawa [in her office] believing that their conversation was confidential.”

In their meeting, Powell had expressed his discomfort with a fellow student who was transgender, Myka Perry, as well as “transgender people in general.” Powell added that he did not want to “upset [Perry] with his opinions,” and that he was not “comfortable speaking with [Perry] outside of class,” according to the summary.

Kujawa reacted to the private meeting by filing a “Safety & Welfare” report against Powell with the Dean of Student’s office two days later, and then informed the transgender student of her private conversation with Powell.

The instructor then allegedly asked if Perry if he “felt safe” walking to the Office of Institutional Equity (OIE) to file an additional report against Powell, to which the transgender student replied by stating that he did feel safe, and showed Kujawa his pocketknife.

The transgender student then filed a report against Powell with Title IX coordinator Jyl Shaffer, who assigned the case to Graduate Research Assistant James Sletten, and then informed Perry that he should “utilize campus police” if he felt uncomfortable.

According to Powell, the university had issued him a “trespass warning, interim suspension, and no-contact order” in response to Perry’s report, and about a week later, Sletten had turned in his report, which had found Powell guilty of “Hostile Environment Harassment” due to his private meeting with Kujawa.

Shaffer has since been removed as Title IX coordinator at MSU, but the university is still facing the lawsuit.

The judge who had ordered the case to go on trial, noted that “mere offensiveness is not enough to create a hostile environment,” which raises the question as to whether the investigators at MSU had violated Powell’s First Amendment rights.

“Neither the complainant nor the investigator would be entitled to claim a violation of this policy because he or she was offended by the speaker’s viewpoint,” reads the court summary.

The judge added that Sletten’ s and Shaffer’s treatment “could be found to have been biased.”

“Powell asserts that MSU treated Perry [and himself] differently under Title IX by ignoring Perry’s threatening gesture of showing a pocket knife — while finding that Powell violated MSU policy by virtue of a statement allegedly made to Kujawa,” the summary states.

This means that the Title IX violation claim will also go to trial, to determine if MSU had additionally discriminated against Powell based on gender.

You can follow Alana Mastrangelo on Twitter at @ARmastrangelo and on Instagram.


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