“Lesbian woman needs roommate to share large four bedroom house with fireplace”
“Gay male seeks roommate.”
Pam Pearn and Michael Sinn just wanted roommates. In 1985, they each took out a classified ad in the Daily Nebraskan. But a policy created by the Board of Regents was used by the newspaper to deny Michael and Pam a classified ad because the ads mentioned their sexual orientation.
As is often the case for the ACLU, this is a tricky area of law with competing interests. The ACLU is a champion of freedom of the press that has supported the rights of newspapers to publish – or not publish – content without government involvement. But we are also a champion for the rights of LGBT people and have stood up for the rights of LGBT people to express themselves in schools and other public forums.
Pam and Michael sued the newspaper under claims that its refusal to print the ads violated their First Amendment right to free expression. They also sued about the governmental involvement since the Publications Board responsible for the newspaper’s policy was created by UNL’s Board of Regents and appointed by the chancellor.
Judge Urbom ruled that the paper was editorially independent from the state and that the university could not control the content of the paper, thus, the students didn’t have standing to sue. In the fall of 1987 the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision.
While this decision allowed the Daily Nebraskan to deny Pam and Michael their ads in the newspaper, it also created a legal precedent appreciated by the ACLU: The policies created by government agencies, such as the Board of Regents, cannot make editorial decisions for student newspapers. In other words, the students who produce the Daily Nebraskan have the First Amendment right to deny publication of an ad, but University officials cannot be involved in that decision.
The ACLU of Nebraska recognized Pam and Michael for their efforts with the Bill of Rights Award (now called the Roger Baldwin Civil Libertarian of the Year Award) at their Bill of Rights Dinner that year. The award is given to an individual or entity that has helped the ACLU of Nebraska advance civil liberties in the last year.
By standing up for their rights to disclose their sexual orientation in their campus newspaper’s advertisements, the pair provided a voice for those who encounter LGBT discrimination every day.
2016 is the 50th anniversary of the ACLU of Nebraska. We will feature several memories from our five decades of defending freedom in the Cornhusker state here. Do you have a favorite memory? Share it with us!