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Auburn student government votes down judicial nominee for socially conservative tweets

Republican lawmakers already scrutinizing public universities because of similar incident at University of North Alabama.

Updated: August 21, 2021 - 1:28am

The Auburn University student government voted down a nominee for chief justice because of his conservative Christian views.

The rejection of Stephen Morris could make the Alabama public university a First Amendment litigation target like Florida State University (FSU), which paid nearly $100,000 to settle a lawsuit by Jack Denton, who was removed as student senate president for similar views.

Auburn is the second taxpayer-funded university in the Yellowhammer State whose student government took adverse action against a nominee or official this summer. 

The University of North Alabama (UNA) Student Government Association (SGA) promised to impeach president Jake Statom if he didn't resign, for saying gays and lesbians must be "born again." The impeachment hearing is scheduled for Aug. 26.

The Alabama House Republican Caucus issued a resolution against the impeachment, and the GOP's State Executive Committee is considering a similar resolution at its upcoming meeting, Yellowhammer News reported.

Morris told Just the News his dispute is like that of Denton and FSU, but because he reapplied to be nominated, "I’m definitely going to let that process play out before I consider taking any legal action." 

The Auburn SGA voted down all the judicial nominees "on my account" and is now "missing an entire branch of government," he said. The president notified Morris Friday night that he had been nominated again and would face another confirmation hearing Sept. 7.

Several senators played down Morris's qualifications for chief justice at his nomination hearing and pointed to the senior's social media posts, according to the Auburn Plainsman

The honors pre-law political science student is also vice president of Auburn's chapter of Best Buddies, an international organization that promotes "friendship and inclusion of all people with developmental and intellectual disabilities." 

He was designated head counselor in Auburn's Week of Service this year, which runs a service learning experience for about 100 incoming freshmen.

But Morris is also the founder and chairman of Auburn's Young Americans for Freedom, the conservative student group, and an "ambassador" for the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the public interest law firm that represented Denton in his successful lawsuit against FSU.

Morris said he had "some of their attorneys take a look" at his situation, but ADF told Just the News it wasn't representing Morris in any capacity, just as it wasn't involved in the Statom dispute at UNA. 

Morris' tweets over the past year reflect his conservative activism, especially on race and sex. Black Lives Matter "terrorists" should be regarded as "inhumane animals" for celebrating the deaths of police officers, Morris said last fall. 

"Personal responsibility – not more government – is the key to escaping poverty in America," he said this winter, citing a three-part aphorism from the liberal Brookings Institution.

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On the first day of Women's History Month, using the hashtag, Morris wrote: "Shoutout to all of the brave female athletes who are forced to com[p]ete against biological males. We see your courage, and we will never stop fighting to keep men out of women’s sports!"

Senators' reasons for voting against Morris are undisputed because the full mid-July hearing where his nomination was debated, and where Morris defended himself, is public. 

Brandan Belser set the tone by calling Morris "unfit to serve" because of the "inhumane animals" tweet. Sydney Williams said "some of the things that one candidate has said" suggest that person would not be "unbiased" in any "controversial" matter before the student court. Both are black.

Just because a black faculty member nominated Morris for Auburn's "Be the Creed" award doesn't make that a qualification, said Molly Boudreaux. Serving on Best Buddies does not make him "effectively able to advocate for all marginalized populations," one said.

During public comment the incoming president of the Black Student Union, Mya Strickland, worried how Morris would handle a hypothetical case about a transgender candidate for Miss Homecoming, according to The College Fix. A black student asked incredulously how Morris could be "chief justice and … think hate speech doesn’t exist," referring to another Morris tweet.

Morris and a few senators warned that rejecting him based on viewpoint would set a "dangerous precedent" for the body. He accused critics of "injecting their partisan political beliefs into this process and essentially imposing a political litmus test on appointees."

He told The College Fix the SGA ignored anti-discrimination provisions in its code as well as "Alabama State Law, the U.S. Constitution, and Supreme Court and Eleventh Circuit precedent," which is binding on Alabama federal courts.

Morris referred Just the News to a 1989 precedent in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that subjects public university student governments to "the same constitutional restrictions as the University itself," in that case the University of Alabama. A federal judge also issued an injunction against FSU in the Denton case.

Auburn University didn't respond to a query on whether it was investigating the vote for propriety under SGA or university rules or as a violation of Morris's constitutional rights, or whether it would press the SGA to offer him a viewpoint-neutral vote. 

SGA Vice President Cole Callahan, the only official with a listed contact, didn't respond to a query about potential legal ramifications from its vote.

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