A federal judge on Friday blocked the University of Wyoming from preventing a Laramie church leader from tabling in the student union or expressing his views about the gender of the first transgender student to join a school sorority.
U.S. District Judge Nancy Freudenthal granted a preliminary injunction sought by lawyers representing church elder Todd Schmidt, ruling Schmidt’s actions in the student union breezeway last December did not constitute discrimination or harassment, and as such, is protected under the First Amendment. Schmidt had posted a sign in the breezeway challenging the gender of Artemis Langford, the transgender woman who joined the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority.
In the aftermath, the university suspended Schmidt’s tabling privileges for a year, concluding he’d violated UW rules on discrimination and harassment. Schmidt followed with a lawsuit and a request for a preliminary injunction to halt the ban while the case winds through the courts.
In her ruling, Freudenthal noted that Schmidt engaged in a tense debate with students over Langford’s admission to the sorority, but he did not directly engage with Langford. Nor was there evidence that Langford “suffered any adverse consequences or experienced interference with academic work or performance,” the ruling states. Previous court rulings have carved out a definition for harassment, namely that it’s severe enough to deny “victims equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.”
The mention of Langford’s name was unavoidable given that the debate centered on whether a transgender woman should be allowed to join a sorority, Freudenthal concluded.
“Schmidt does not misgender Langford to denigrate her, but to debate a public issue,” the judge wrote, adding that “Schmidt’s speech is part of an earnest debate about gender identity, a matter of public importance.”
In a statement released Friday morning, the university said it would comply with the court’s ruling while school lawyers weighed whether to continue defending the case.
“While the court found in this instance Pastor Schmidt’s conduct was not harassment or discrimination, the university’s right to regulate certain conduct by those tabling in the student union was recognized, and the university will continue to take lawful steps to protect the safety of students, employees and members of the public,” the school wrote.
But Freudethal found that the university appeared to favor one viewpoint — that of Schmidt’s critics — over the church elder’s perspective. The judge cited the university’s decision to demand Schmidt remove Langford’s name but keep the remainder of the sign.
“Students approached Schmidt’s table to debate his views on Langford’s sex,” the ruling states. “Presumably some of these students have views opposed to those of Schmidt and believe that Langford is female and belongs in a sorority. There is no indication that those students were prohibited from debating Schmidt or speaking Langford’s name. Therefore, the University appears to be favoring one viewpoint over another.”
Attorneys for Schmidt said Friday they were pleased with the result of the court ruling.
“UW officials not only marginalized Mr. Schmidt’s views about the Artemis Langford controversy, they censored his beliefs, and punished him for having those beliefs,” attorney Nathan Kellum with the Center for Religious Expression said in a statement. “We are thankful for the relief provided by the court, allowing Mr. Schmidt to share his opinion on campus — just like everyone else.”
Schmidt had posted the sign on his breezeway table on Dec. 2. A group of students responded by standing in front of it to block others from seeing the words. University Dean of Students Ryan O’Neil asked Schmidt to remove Langford’s name, saying it violated UW policies governing the student union. He did, but only after O’Neil said she would call the police.
That day, the student newspaper the Branding Iron reported on the incident, and other publications soon followed. The matter received considerable attention around the state, and three days later, UW President Ed Seidel weighed in.
In a letter to the campus community, Seidel described a heated exchange in the breezeway, but said the interactions “were not in obvious violation of UW policies.” He encouraged a respectful conversation when people engage with different perspectives.
Some criticized Seidel for not taking a stronger stance against Schmidt’s actions or punishing him. A letter from an alumni group, the judge noted in her ruling, recounted past incidents when Schmidt was accused of yelling at or harassing students regarding their sexual identity.
On the day the letter was sent, UW officials took action against Schmidt. They banned him from reserving a table in the student union until January 2024, when the spring semester begins. In a letter to Schmidt, O’Neil argued he violated a UW regulation regarding discrimination and harassment.
“While freedom of expression is cherished on this campus and across this nation, a line was crossed when a student was harassed by name. This is something we will not tolerate on this campus, and this action speaks to that key principle to which we adhere at UW,” Seidel wrote in a message to the UW community.
The university did not ban Schmidt from other parts of the campus. Within days, he was back at UW, continuing to preach.
Knowing Schmidt will be allowed back in the breezeway frustrates Hanna Crockett. “I’m sick of talking about Todd Schmidt,” she said. “I wish I wouldn’t have to anymore.”
But as co-chair of the Queer Community Coalition — the LGBTQIA+ student group — Crockett spends a lot of her time in the Poke Pride Center just down the hall from where Schmidt tables.
Conversations between people who have different ideas about being queer and trans is one thing, but it’s another to go “out of your way to specify that one student is trans — saying that in the space where you know they work, where they go to school, where they spend their free time, that makes it a space where now it’s threatening,” Crockett said. “That’s no longer a space where you can spend your free time studying.”
WyoFile Deputy Managing Editor Tennessee Watson contributed to this report.