A Regent University law student says school officials have threatened to discipline him for posting an unflattering photo of founder Pat Robertson on his Facebook page.
Adam M. Key, 23, posted on the social-networking Web site a picture of Regent's chancellor and president making what appears to be an obscene gesture. Key copied it from a YouTube video in which Robertson scratches his face with his middle finger.
The second-year law student said officials at the private Christian university in Virginia Beach demanded that he publicly apologize, then withhold public comment about the matter, or submit to the law school dean a legal brief defending the posting. Key chose the latter, arguing that his posting was satire protected under the First Amendment.
"I believe they're wrong from a legal standpoint," the Houston native said in a telephone interview Thursday. "But also, it's important in the Christian faith to be able to criticize our leaders."
According to Key, Dean Jeffrey Brauch rejected his written legal brief, and he now faces disciplinary action — perhaps even expulsion — under the university's standards of personal conduct.
"I will pay any price to defend free expression — especially against anyone who wants to take it away in the name of God," Key said.
Robertson said in a written statement Thursday evening that privacy laws barred him from commenting specifically on Key's situation, but that "in general, no action should be taken against anyone who exercises their freedom of speech and expression, and that includes criticism or satire of the chancellor."
He continued: "However, we do not feel that freedom of speech encompasses the practice of the deliberate manipulation of television images to transform an innocent gesture into something obscene."
Robertson did not address any possible disciplinary action against Key, who said he expects to hear something next week after students return from fall break.
"I would like to not have this hanging over my head," Key said.
Robert M. O'Neil, director of the University of Virginia's Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, said Regent probably has a legal right to discipline Key because private institutions are not constrained by the First Amendment.
However, O'Neil said disciplinary action might not be in Regent's best interests because most private universities "pride themselves on making a voluntary commitment" to free speech rights, even if they are not legally bound to do so.