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Supreme Court
could side with antigay campus recruiters

Supreme Court
could side with antigay campus recruiters

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In hearing arguments Tuesday in a case that has largely focused on free speech rights, the U.S. Supreme Court appeared ready to uphold a law that says colleges receiving federal funds cannot bar recruiters

The Supreme Court appeared ready Tuesday to uphold a law that says colleges cannot turn away military recruiters in protest of the Pentagon's policy on out gay service members if the universities also want to receive federal money. Chief Justice John Roberts said schools unhappy with the "don't ask, don't tell" policy have a simple solution: turn down federal cash.

And Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who is retiring, said colleges can post disclaimers on campus noting their objections to military policy.

Law school campuses have become the latest battleground over the policy allowing gay men and lesbians to serve in the military only if they keep their sexual orientation to themselves. Solicitor General Paul Clement said that when the government picks up the tab for things like research and education grants, the military also is entitled to demand "a fair shot" in terms of equal access for its recruiters to a university's "best and brightest." Clement said the military is receiving nothing more than any other donor would expect.

A few justices, including David Souter, worried that the free speech rights of law schools could be hindered by the congressional action of tying funding to military recruiters' access. "The law schools are taking a position on First Amendment grounds, and that position is in interference with military recruiting--no question about it," Souter said. More court members seemed concerned about military recruitment in the post-9/11 world. Federal financial support of colleges tops $35 billion a year, and many college leaders say they could not forgo that money. Immediately after the argument, the Supreme Court released an audio tape to news organizations because of interest in the case. Cameras are not allowed in court.

About a half dozen members of the antigay Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church protested outside the high court, waving signs with slogans like "America is doomed" and yelling at reporters and passersby in front of the court before the argument. They dragged behind them U.S. flags tied around their ankles as they paced the rain-drenched sidewalk. "The Supreme Court shouldn't even have to debate about this," said Rebekah Phelps-Roper, 18.

Some students camped out overnight to get seats for the argument. Dan Noble, a 26-year-old gay student at Yale Law School, said, "You feel discriminated against when some recruiters will interview your fellow students but won't interview you."

Many law schools forbid the participation of recruiters from public agencies and private companies that have discriminatory policies. Law schools have "a Hobson's choice: Either the university must forsake millions of dollars of federal funds largely unrelated to the law school, or the law school must abandon its commitment to fight discrimination," justices were told in a filing by the Association of American Law Schools.

The federal law, known as the Solomon Amendment, after its first congressional sponsor, mandates that universities, including their law and medical schools and other branches, give the military the same access as other recruiters or forfeit money from federal agencies like the Education, Labor, and Transportation departments.

Dozens of groups have filed briefs on both sides of the case, the first gay-rights related appeal since a contentious 2003 Supreme Court ruling that struck down laws criminalizing gay sex. The latest case stems from a lawsuit against the Pentagon by a group of law schools and professors claiming their free-speech rights are being violated on grounds they are forced to associate with military recruiters or promote their campus appearances. Free-speech cases are often divisive at the court. If Samuel Alito, President Bush's nominee to succeed O'Connor, is confirmed by the Senate before the case is decided sometime next year, he could be called on to break any tie vote.

A panel of the Philadelphia-based third U.S. circuit court of appeals found it was reasonably likely that the law violated free speech rights. Alito serves on that appeals court but was not involved in the case. The case is Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights. (AP)

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