Commentary Violence

Do Feed the Trolls—to People Who Will Hold Them Accountable

Andrea Grimes

A few weeks ago, I experienced an Internet first: a troll genuinely apologized to me for his behavior. What happened? I called him out by calling in his family members and his peers. By treating him like a human being, instead of an insult machine with a keyboard and Internet access.

I’ve been using the Internet for nigh on 20 years now, and social media for nearly as long. But a few weeks ago, I experienced an Internet first: a troll genuinely apologized to me for his behavior.

What happened? I called him out by calling in his family members and his peers. By treating him like a human being, instead of an anonymous insult machine with a keyboard and Internet access.

The conventional thinking when it comes to online harassment might be “Don’t feed the trolls”—as in, just ignore them and they’ll go away. But I propose a new convention: Do feed the trolls … to people they know.

I’m not advocating in this instance for “public shaming,” a practice that’s getting a bad rap these days among certain crowds—erroneously so, in my opinion, but that’s another piece altogether. I’m talking about demanding social accountability, a modicum of civility, from online trolls, using much the same approach I’d employ for any asshole who wandered up to my stool at the bar and called me, ahemm, a “stupid fucking cunt.”

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Because this particular troll had indeed messaged me from his real account on Facebook, calling me a “stupid fucking cunt” and telling me to kill myself. He did this from an account that also publicly listed his friends and relatives. So I copied his message and sent it to a couple of people on my troll’s friends list who shared his rather unique last name. It was a shot in the virtual dark, but I sent a brief note, along with a screenshot, asking the troll’s presumed family members to maybe consult with him about more productive ways of talking to strangers, particularly strange women, online. It cost me $1 to ensure my message went to these folks’ regularly visible inboxes instead of their “other” boxes, where spam and—ironically enough—troll messages from total strangers tend to land.

Just days after I did so, I got the best return on any investment I’ve ever made. My troll sent me just one line, but it was a glorious one: “I’m sorry about the last message. I sincerely apologize.”


I’ve never had a troll apologize to me before, and I’ve had probably thousands of them—mostly men, mostly intent on alerting me to my sluttiness, fatness, and overall rape-ability—take up residence in my timelines and inboxes over the years. It’s an experience that any social media user who isn’t a straight, cis white guy is very likely to be intimately familiar with.

What made this guy different? Well, I reacted differently to him than I have to any other troll, ever. Instead of pretending like he existed solely on some elusive nonspace called “the Internet” that we’ve somehow (wrongly) come to think of as being wholly separate from the “real” world, I treated him like a human being, who owes it to his fellow humans not to act like a complete jerk.

It wasn’t putting this guy on blast to my 15,000 or so Twitter followers—which I did, by sharing the same screenshot I sent his family—that had evidently prompted his apology. And look, it absolutely felt good to do so. There are social and emotional advantages to reaching out to a friendly community when you’ve just been told that you’re a stupid fucking cunt who should die by her own hand.

It also created an echo chamber—albeit a supportive, funny, entertaining, soul-enriching echo chamber. Sure, I’d do it all over again (and did do, with subsequent messages), but it also treated my troll as if he existed nowhere but on the Internet: as if he were a screen name and avatar attached to a nobody-nothingness ripe for mockery and moving on. It didn’t have any effect on, or perhaps for, my troll.

But showing his mom—or possibly his wife, sister, or aunt—what he’d said was a different story. She wrote back quickly and told me she’d “look into it,” though she told me his message was “completely out of character for him.”

This guy didn’t care what 15,000 strangers thought about him calling me a stupid fucking cunt. But he did care what his family thought, at least enough to make a show of sending me an apology.

My inspiration was Alanah Pearce, a video game reviewer who did something similar with young men who’d sent her rape threats on Facebook last year: She messaged their moms. Said moms were mortified. Sons wrote apologies. And as I read my troll’s apology, gobsmacked, I also thought of writer and comedian Lindy West’s brilliant This American Life piece about confronting her own worst troll by telephone. This elicited not only an apology, but some mighty thoughtful introspective self-evaluation from him. West’s troll actually reached out to her first, but there’s something about bringing trolls into a space where they have to grapple with an actual human that seems to disarm them.

And after I posted my own troll apology success story, another friend of mine told me she’d been inspired to confront one of her trolls, an anti-choice blogger who’d posted a picture of my friend’s baby online, inviting a slew of death threats and abuse into her life. Through a mutual online contact whom she had reason to believe that her troll rather respected, she asked the troll to remove the photos, and they complied with her request.

Trolls thrive on one-way communication; even responding to them publicly on Twitter is a gamble. Maybe we get to rip through a few good burns and toss off some funny jokes, but ultimately, the troll’s first message is often all they ever need or care about: They just want to make sure that their target hears, and hopefully internalizes, whatever horrible invective is issued their way in that initial conversation.

By bringing our trolls’ social circles rather than just our own into the fold, though, we were able to redirect a one-way communication, volleying their cruel messages back over the net to their team, instead of punting it haplessly to our own.

These examples complicate the knee-jerk “don’t feed the trolls” narrative, wherein people who are harassed or abused online are told to simply ignore message after hateful message, lest they provide more fuel for a troll’s fire.

But if a troll is trolling, the fire’s already been started. And when trolls launch into attacks that include words like “cunt” or “fatty” or “bitch” or “whoreface,” the fuel, as it were, is the simple act of being a woman in public.

Do trolls take cues from their victims’ reactions? Sure. Many times, ignoring a troll will mean that the troll stops with just one message. By contrast, they often enjoy the thrill of engaging further with their victims. I don’t deny that, and I’m careful about the lengths to which I’ll entertain a public kerfuffle with a harasser.

“Don’t feed the trolls” doesn’t stop trolling in general, though—it just means that our inboxes and timelines fill up with a bunch of one-way messages filled with hate and vitriol.

The truth is, I’m starting to think that “don’t feed the trolls” is as much about absolving nice people like you and me of the responsibility to confront the fact that our friends, family, and loved ones are taking to the Internet to spew abusive invective at strangers as it is about simply not providing more fuel for the troll fires. Because in truth, online abusers and harassers thrive, in part, on the shame of the people they target, benefitting from the helplessness of their victims to do anything of consequence to shadowy, anonymous strangers—including confronting the trolls, the trolls’ families, or the trolls’ social support groups about their behavior.

So “don’t feed the trolls” can promote the silence that trolls bank on. If the default response to trolling is to ignore it, trolls can enjoy knowing that their targets will keep quiet about their harassment, and no one who might hold the troll responsible for their actions will ever be the wiser. It’s a guarantee against transparency.

In fact, it feels a lot like the admonition we give our children: Don’t be a tattle-tale. I’ve never understood this way of thinking, because it reads predominantly as laziness to me: Don’t make me get involved; I’m trying to watch the game.

Maybe I feel this way because I was a tattle-tale. I guess I still am. I like it that way.

This is a plea I have made again and again, particularly to my guy friends and male feminist allies: asking them to tell their fellow dudes that this kind of behavior is unacceptable. Invariably, I receive pushback on this idea from people who say that they don’t know anyone who would threaten to rape or murder women on the Internet, or that their own family and friends would never hurl racist slurs at people of color online.


I suspect that the friends and family members of the trolls I contacted a few weeks ago might have thought something similar—indeed, the evidence suggests that at least one person felt that their relative’s trolling was “completely” out of character. But now at least a few of them know otherwise, whether or not they intend to ever do anything about it. I was able, in a terribly small way, to chip away at the anonymity that not only affords trolls the ability to operate with impunity, but gives those in their social networks’ ability to plead ignorance.

This doesn’t work all the time. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to trolling, and not just because so few trolls undertake to abuse and harass strangers under their real names. My suggestion—feeding a troll back to their social circle—is a tremendous risk, and it’s not one that I suggest anyone undertake lightly. It could be dangerous, and it requires a troll’s target to have the time and emotional wherewithal to risk further abuse, or to hear from those whose aid they seek that it’s just not their problem. Or worse, they could find that their trolls’ social circles support their behavior.

I know this because I also contacted the friends and family of some of my other Facebook trolls, and either never received a response or was told that it wasn’t any of their business. In one instance, the father of a man who told me that he hoped that I “get raped by a gang of black man [sic] and they set you on fire” and “fuck you in the face you fat cunt and kill yourself” excused his son’s behavior by explaining that “he is very outspoken and excitable.” The same troll’s girlfriend told me that she’s “one of those to each there [sic] own kinda people so I won’t be much help.”


So, yeah. To each their own, indeed. Not an A+ solution in every case. Obviously.

But I do take some comfort in knowing that a man who told me to “get raped” didn’t get to do so quietly, in the privacy of my inbox. Even if I never hear a word about it, maybe the friends and family members of these trolls will look at these guys a little differently now, knowing the behavior they indulge in online.

Maybe they won’t. Maybe they still don’t give a shit. But I feel a hell of a lot better.

The Online vs. “Real” World Fallacy

At first, I struggled with the idea of outing these guys to their friends and families; it seemed, somehow, even more rude and uncouth than telling a total stranger to commit suicide. As if I were breaking some kind of sacred rule.

And in a way, I was. Women are socialized to be demure, accommodating. I’m not surprised that my trolls felt empowered to harass me. After all, they probably expected me to do what women the world over have been taught to do: Keep quiet. Mind my own business. Don’t cause a fuss. Don’t be a tattle-tale—that’s so very much worse than bullying could ever be!

But gendered violence, gendered bullying, is my business, and I’m not the one causing a fuss when I’m on the receiving end of a line like “you’re a treasonous twatbag who needs to be eliminated soon.” It’s everyone’s business, and it is especially the business of those who possess the social capital to demand better of their peers.

I simply do not separate “online” from “offline” when we are talking about manifestations of gendered and racial oppression and prejudice. I refuse to pretend like there are two discrete groups of bigots and bullies in this world, one of which can be roundly appeased with weak maxims like “don’t feed the trolls.” Do we really believe that people stop thinking hateful thoughts as soon as they shut off their computers or smartphones? That the hatred and vitriol these trolls—real humans, with real lives—express online never manifests unless it’s being transmitted through a wifi connection?

The line of thinking that makes women targets of gendered abuse online is merely an extension of the line of thinking that makes them targets of, for example, domestic violence in their homes. The line of thinking that makes women of color targets for misogynoiristic abuse online is the same line of thinking that makes them targets of, for example, police violence offline.

We know that, to some degree, social pressure to behave civilly in our homes, workplaces and neighborhoods keeps people mostly responsible for their everyday actions. That is, at least, how most of us raise our children: We teach them not to steal, because it hurts our communities. We teach them not to make fun, because it hurts our communities. The list goes on.

Why, then, don’t we exert those same social pressures on the Internet? Why do we continue to make it difficult for people who are abused online to report and counter their abuse?

Because abusers and harassers do the most powerful and privileged members of our society the tremendous favor of maintaining a status quo predicated on white supremacy and patriarchy, and anyone who’s in a position to do anything about it gets to simply throw up their hands and say “Don’t feed the trolls!” Then they reap the benefits. That lets us—people who might otherwise have to have difficult conversations with people we’d rather think better of—off the hook just as much as it does the trolls.

It’s a mighty fucking convenient little system, isn’t it?

Case in point: This week, Twitter launched a new feature that allows people to receive direct messages from any user, not just users they follow.

I get harassed on Twitter a fair bit, but I’ve never been harassed in a Twitter direct message. It would take remarkable disregard for the conventions of polite discourse for someone who is able to DM me to also harass me. I don’t reckon it’s impossible, but there’s simply a greater chance that, if someone is DM’ing me, I know who they are in a way that could signal actual consequences for, as an example, telling me to “get raped.” They’d have to actively and purposefully violate a social contract.

Now, Twitter’s powers-that-be have apparently decided to focus their efforts on creating yet another means by which trolls can reach their targets without incurring those social consequences. It’s something of a relief that this is an opt-in only feature. Still, it’s disappointing to the extent that it shows that Twitter’s priorities do not include strengthening their support structure for people who are harassed on their platform, despite claims to the contrary. It signals to me that whatever efforts they have made to empower and accommodate marginalized voices on their platform so far have largely been done half-assedly.

Which is a terrible shame, because Twitter has emerged as a space where people, especially women of color who are often otherwise written off by the gatekeepers of mainstream media and mainstream white feminism, can develop, create, and host wide-ranging conversations without begging for air time from those who would only ever have given it grudgingly, if at all.

At its best, Twitter upsets the historic balance of power in terms of national and international discourse. But at its worst, it is a hellmouth of harassment where the nipping flames of racist and misogynist trolling are not only not stifled, but are indeed continually fed, by Twitter’s own willfully impotent leadership.

To repeatedly fail to put meaningful accountability measures in place—Twitter could, for example, require users to tie their accounts to a cell phone number—is to pretend as though trolling is just an inevitable matter of Internet happenstance instead of a behavior that feeds on anonymity and ease of access to potential victims.

Online harassment doesn’t happen by accident, perpetrated by mysterious strangers with an unknowable agenda. It isn’t as if there is nothing to be done about this kind of behavior besides not “feeding” those who engage in it. As if I have to wonder what’s up the ass of a man who calls me a “stupid fat fucking whorecunt.” I know precisely what he’s upset about: my engagement with and in the world as a woman who has failed to express a sole desire to appease him and men like him.

Indeed, online abuse is expressly intended to bleed over into the “real” world, where it reinforces historic systems of oppression and marginalization. For reference, see the entirety of the “GamerGate” affair, wherein trolls and bullies actively sought, via online harassment, to dissuade anyone who isn’t a straight, cis white guy from participating in the culture of video games. Why would we ever, then, try to pretend that we can’t or shouldn’t use the “real” world, and real-life consequences, to push back in the other direction?

Ultimately, I leave the decision to “call in” a troll’s friends or family members up to the individual being trolled. This piece is emphatically not a demand for all people who are bullied or harassed to engage in elaborate “doxxing” campaigns of their abusers. Indeed, it couldn’t be, even if I wished for it: The vast majority of trolls are, and will remain for the forseeable future, functionally anonymous, because platforms like Twitter continue to allow people to create an endless array of sockpuppet accounts that can only be deactivated if they repeatedly engage in the absolute worst kinds of abuse.

But if you’re being harassed online, and you’ve got the opportunity to engage a troll’s social circle in addressing their abuse, I encourage you to think about doing so if you think you can do it safely. You might be doing your troll’s next intended target—who could very well be someone they know in the “real” world—a favor.

Commentary Economic Justice

The Gender Wage Gap Is Not Women’s Fault, and Here’s the Report That Proves It

Kathleen Geier

The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work.

A new report confirms what millions of women already know: that women’s choices are not to blame for the gender wage gap. Instead, researchers at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the progressive think tank that issued the report, say that women’s unequal pay is driven by “discrimination, social norms, and other factors beyond women’s control.”

This finding—that the gender pay gap is caused by structural factors rather than women’s occupational choices—is surprisingly controversial. Indeed, in my years as a journalist covering women’s economic issues, the subject that has been most frustrating for me to write about has been the gender gap. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked as a consultant for EPI, though not on this particular report.) No other economic topic I’ve covered has been more widely misunderstood, or has been so outrageously distorted by misrepresentations, half-truths, and lies.

That’s because, for decades, conservatives have energetically promoted the myth that the gender pay gap does not exist. They’ve done such a bang-up job of it that denying the reality of the gap, like denying the reality of global warming, has become an article of faith on the right. Conservative think tanks like the Independent Women’s Forum and the American Enterprise Institute and right-wing writers at outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Breitbart, and the Daily Caller have denounced the gender pay gap as “a lie,” “not the real story,” “a fairy tale,” “a statistical delusion,” and “the myth that won’t die.” Sadly, it is not only right-wing propagandists who are gender wage gap denialists. Far more moderate types like Slate’s Hanna Rosin and the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson have also claimed that the gender wage gap statistic is misleading and exaggerates disparities in earnings.

According to the most recent figures available from the Census Bureau, for every dollar a man makes, a woman makes only 79 cents, a statistic that has barely budged in a decade. And that’s just the gap for women overall; for most women of color, it’s considerably larger. Black women earn only 61 percent of what non-Hispanic white men make, and Latinas earn only 55 percent as much. In a recent survey, U.S. women identified the pay gap as their biggest workplace concern. Yet gender wage gap denialists of a variety of political stripes contend that gender gap statistic—which measures the difference in median annual earnings between men and women who work full-time, year-round—is inaccurate because it does not compare the pay of men and women doing the same work. They argue that when researchers control for traits like experience, type of work, education, and the like, the gender gap evaporates like breath on a window. In short, the denialists frame the gender pay gap as the product not of sexist discrimination, but of women’s freely made choices.

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The EPI study’s co-author, economist Elise Gould, said in an interview with Rewire that she and her colleagues realized the need for the new report when an earlier paper generated controversy on social media. That study had uncovered an “unadjusted”—meaning that it did not control for differences in workplace and personal characteristics—$4 an hour gender wage gap among recent college graduates. Gould said she found this pay disparity “astounding”: “You’re looking at two groups of people, men and women, with virtually the same amount of experience, and yet their wages are so different.” But critics on Twitter, she said, claimed that the wage gap simply reflected the fact that women were choosing lower-paid jobs. “So we wanted to take out this one idea of occupational choice and look at that,” Gould said.

Gould and her co-author Jessica Schieder highlight two important findings in their EPI report. One is that, even within occupations, and even after controlling for observable factors such as education and work experience, the gender wage gap remains stubbornly persistent. As Gould told me, “If you take a man and a woman sitting side by side in a cubicle, doing the same exact job with the same amount of experience and the same amount of education, on average, the man is still going to be paid more than the woman.”

The EPI report cites the work of Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, who looked at the relative weight in the overall wage gap of gender-based pay differences within occupations versus those between occupations. She found that while gender pay disparities between different occupations explain 32 percent of the gap, pay differences within the same occupation account for far more—68 percent, or more than twice as much. In other words, even if we saw equal numbers of men and women in every profession, two-thirds of the gender wage gap would still remain.

And yes, female-dominated professions pay less, but the reasons why are difficult to untangle. It’s a chicken-and-egg phenomenon, the EPI report explains, raising the question: Are women disproportionately nudged into low-status, low-wage occupations, or do these occupations pay low wages simply because it is women who are doing the work?

Historically, “women’s work” has always paid poorly. As scholars such as Paula England have shown, occupations that involve care work, for example, are associated with a wage penalty, even after controlling for other factors. But it’s not only care work that is systematically devalued. So, too, is work in other fields where women workers are a majority—even professions that were not initially dominated by women. The EPI study notes that when more women became park rangers, for example, overall pay in that occupation declined. Conversely, as computer programming became increasingly male-dominated, wages in that sector began to soar.

The second major point that Gould and Schieder emphasize is that a woman’s occupational choice does not occur in a vacuum. It is powerfully shaped by forces like discrimination and social norms. “By the time a woman earns her first dollar, her occupational choice is the culmination of years of education, guidance by mentors, parental expectations, hiring practices, and widespread norms and expectations about work/family balance,” Gould told Rewire. One study cited by Gould and Schieder found that in states where traditional attitudes about gender are more prevalent, girls tend to score higher in reading and lower in math, relative to boys. It’s one of many findings demonstrating that cultural attitudes wield a potent influence on women’s achievement. (Unfortunately, the EPI study does not address racism, xenophobia, or other types of bias that, like sexism, shape individuals’ work choices.)

Parental expectations also play a key role in shaping women’s occupational choices. Research reflected in the EPI study shows that parents are more likely to expect their sons to enter male-dominated science, technology, engineering, and math (often called STEM) fields, as opposed to their daughters. This expectation holds even when their daughters score just as well in math.

Another factor is the culture in male-dominated industries, which can be a huge turn-off to women, especially women of color. In one study of women working in science and technology, Latinas and Black women reported that they were often mistaken for janitors—something that none of the white women in the study had experienced. Another found that 52 percent of highly qualified women working in science and technology ended up leaving those fields, driven out by “hostile work environments and extreme job pressures.”

Among those pressures are excessively long hours, which make it difficult to balance careers with unpaid care work, for which women are disproportionately responsible. Goldin’s research, Gould said, shows that “in jobs that have more temporal flexibility instead of inflexibility and long hours, you do see a smaller gender wage gap.” Women pharmacists, for example, enjoy relatively high pay and a narrow wage gap, which Goldin has linked to flexible work schedules and a professional culture that enables work/life balance. By contrast, the gender pay gap is widest in highest-paying fields such as finance, which disproportionately reward those able to work brutally long hours and be on call 24/7.

Fortunately, remedies for the gender wage gap are at hand. Gould said that strong enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, greater wage transparency (which can be achieved through unions and collective bargaining), and more flexible workplace policies would all help to alleviate gender-based pay inequities. Additional solutions include raising the minimum wage, which would significantly boost the pay of the millions of women disproportionately concentrated in the low-wage sector, and enacting paid family leave, a policy that would be a boon for women struggling to combine work and family. All of these issues are looming increasingly large in our national politics.

But in order to advance these policies, it’s vital to debunk the right’s shameless, decades-long disinformation campaign about the gender gap. The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work. The right alleges that the official gender pay gap figure exaggerates the role of discrimination. But even statistics that adjust for occupation and other factors can, in the words of the EPI study, “radically understate the potential for gender discrimination to suppress women’s earnings.”

Contrary to conservatives’ claims, women did not choose to be paid consistently less than men for work that is every bit as valuable to society. But with the right set of policies, we can reverse the tide and bring about some measure of economic justice to the hard-working women of the United States.

Analysis Law and Policy

Do Counselors-in-Training Have the Right to Discriminate Against LGBTQ People?

Greg Lipper

Doctors can't treat their patients with leeches; counselors can't impose their beliefs on patients or harm them using discredited methods. Whatever their views, medical professionals have to treat their clients competently.

Whether they’re bakers, florists, or government clerks, those claiming the right to discriminate against LGBTQ people have repeatedly sought to transform professional services into constitutionally protected religious speech. They have grabbed headlines for refusing, for example, to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples or to make cakes for same-sex couples’ weddings-all in the name of “religious freedom.”

A bit more quietly, however, a handful of counseling students at public universities have challenged their schools’ nondiscrimination and treatment requirements governing clinical placements. In some cases, they have sought a constitutional right to withhold treatment from LGBTQ clients; in others, they have argued for the right to directly impose their religious and anti-gay views on their clients.

There has been some state legislative maneuvering on this front: Tennessee, for instance, recently enacted a thinly veiled anti-LGBTQ measure that would allow counselors to deny service on account of their “sincerely held principles.” But when it comes to the federal Constitution, providing medical treatment—whether bypass surgery, root canal, or mental-health counseling—isn’t advocacy (religious or otherwise) protected by the First Amendment. Counselors are medical professionals; they are hired to help their clients, no matter their race, religion, or sexual orientation, and no matter the counselors’ beliefs. The government, moreover, may lawfully prevent counselors from harming their clients, and universities in particular have an interest, recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court, in preventing discrimination in school activities and in training their students to work with diverse populations.

The plaintiffs in these cases have nonetheless argued that their schools are unfairly and unconstitutionally targeting them for their religious beliefs. But these students are not being targeted, any more than are business owners who must comply with civil rights laws. Instead, their universities, informed by the rules of the American Counseling Association (ACA)—the leading organization of American professional counselors—merely ask that all students learn to treat diverse populations and to do so in accordance with the standard of care. These plaintiffs, as a result, have yet to win a constitutional right to discriminate against or impose anti-LGBTQ views on actual or prospective clients. But cases persist, and the possibility of conflicting court decisions looms.

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Keeton v. Anderson-Wiley

The first major challenge to university counseling requirements came from Jennifer Keeton, who hoped to receive a master’s degree in school counseling from Augusta State University. As detailed in the 2011 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decision considering her case, Keeton entered her professional training believing that (1) “sexual behavior is the result of personal choice for which individuals are accountable, not inevitable deterministic forces”; (2) “gender is fixed and binary (i.e., male or female), not a social construct or personal choice subject to individual change”; and “homosexuality is a ‘lifestyle,’ not a ‘state of being.'”

It wasn’t those views alone, however, that sunk her educational plans. The problem, rather, was that Keeton wanted to impose her views on her patients. Keeton had told both her classmates and professors about her clinical approach at a university-run clinic, and it wasn’t pretty:

  • She would try to change the sexual orientation of gay clients;
  • If she were counseling a sophomore student in crisis questioning his sexual orientation, she would respond by telling the student that it was not OK to be gay.
  • If a client disclosed that he was gay, she would tell him that his behavior was wrong and try to change it; if she were unsuccessful, she would refer the client to someone who practices “conversion therapy.”

Unsurprisingly, Keeton also told school officials that it would be difficult for her to work with LGBTQ clients.

Keeton’s approach to counseling not only would have flouted the university’s curricular guidelines, but also would have violated the ACA’s Code of Ethics.

Her conduct would have harmed her patients as well. As a school counselor, Keeton would inevitably have to counsel LGBTQ clients: 57 percent of LGBTQ students have sought help from a school professional and 42 percent have sought help from a school counselor. Suicide is the leading cause of death for LGBTQ adolescents; that’s twice or three times the suicide rate afflicting their heterosexual counterparts. And Keeton’s preferred approach to counseling LGBTQ students would harm them: LGBTQ students rejected by trusted authority figures are even more likely to attempt suicide, and anti-gay “conversion therapy” at best doesn’t work and at worst harms patients too.

Seeking to protect the university’s clinical patients and train her to be a licensed mental health professional, university officials asked Keeton to complete a remediation plan before she counseled students in her required clinical practicum. She refused; the university expelled her. In response, the Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom sued on her behalf, claiming that the university violated her First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion.

The courts disagreed. The trial court ruled against Keeton, and a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit unanimously upheld the trial court’s ruling. The 11th Circuit explained that Keeton was expelled not because of her religious beliefs, but rather because of her “own statements that she intended to impose her personal religious beliefs on clients and refer clients to conversion therapy, and her own admissions that it would be difficult for her to work with the GLBTQ population and separate her own views from those of the client.” It was Keeton, not the university, who could not separate her personal beliefs from the professional counseling that she provided: “[F]ar from compelling Keeton to profess a belief or change her own beliefs about the morality of homosexuality, [the university] instructs her not to express her personal beliefs regarding the client’s moral values.”

Keeton, in other words, crossed the line between beliefs and conduct. She may believe whatever she likes, but she may not ignore academic and professional requirements designed to protect her clients—especially when serving clients at a university-run clinic.

As the court explained, the First Amendment would not prohibit a medical school from requiring students to perform blood transfusions in their clinical placements, nor would it prohibit a law school from requiring extra ethics training for a student who “expressed an intent to indiscriminately disclose her client’s secrets or violate another of the state bar’s rules.” Doctors can’t treat their patients with leeches; counselors can’t impose their beliefs on patients or harm them using discredited methods. Whatever their views, medical professionals have to treat their clients competently.

Ward v. Polite

The Alliance Defending Freedom’s follow-up case, Ward v. Polite, sought to give counseling students the right to withhold service from LGBTQ patients and also to practice anti-gay “conversion therapy” on those patients. The case’s facts were a bit murkier, and this led the appeals court to send it to trial; as a result, the student ultimately extracted only a modest settlement from the university. But as in Keeton’s case, the court rejected in a 2012 decision the attempt to give counseling students the right to impose their religious views on their clients.

Julea Ward studied counseling at Eastern Michigan University; like Keeton, she was training to be a school counselor. When she reviewed the file for her third client in the required clinical practicum, she realized that he was seeking counseling about a romantic relationship with someone of the same sex. As the Court of Appeals recounted, Ward did not want to counsel the client about this topic, and asked her faculty supervisor “(1) whether she should meet with the client and refer him [to a different counselor] only if it became necessary—only if the counseling session required Ward to affirm the client’s same-sex relationship—or (2) whether the school should reassign the client from the outset.” Although her supervisor reassigned the client, it was the first time in 20 years that one of her students had made such a request. So Ward’s supervisor scheduled a meeting with her.

Then things went off the rails. Ward, explained the court, “reiterated her religious objection to affirming same-sex relationships.” She told university officials that while she had “no problem counseling gay and lesbian clients,” she would counsel them only if “the university did not require her to affirm their sexual orientation.” She also refused to counsel “heterosexual clients about extra-marital sex and adultery in a values-affirming way.” As for the professional rules governing counselors, Ward said, “who’s the [American Counseling Association] to tell me what to do. I answer to a higher power and I’m not selling out God.”

All this led the university to expel Ward, and she sued. She claimed that the university violated her free speech and free exercise rights, and that she had a constitutional right to withhold affirming therapy relating to any same-sex relationships or different-sex relationships outside of marriage. Like Keeton, Ward also argued that the First Amendment prohibited the university from requiring “gay-affirmative therapy” while prohibiting “reparative therapy.” After factual discovery, the trial court dismissed her case.

On appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, Ward eked out a narrow and temporary win: The court held that the case should go to a jury. Because the university did not have a written policy prohibiting referrals, and based on a few troubling faculty statements during Ward’s review, the court ruled that a reasonable jury could potentially find that the university invoked a no-referrals policy “as a pretext for punishing Ward’s religious views and speech.” At the same time, the court recognized that a jury could view the facts less favorably to Ward and rule for the university.

And although the decision appeared to sympathize with Ward’s desire to withhold service from certain types of clients, the court flatly rejected Ward’s sweeping arguments that she had the right to stray from the school curriculum, refuse to counsel LGBTQ clients, or practice anti-gay “conversion therapy.” For one, it said, “Curriculum choices are a form of school speech, giving schools considerable flexibility in designing courses and policies and in enforcing them so long as they amount to reasonable means of furthering legitimate educational ends.” Thus, the problem was “not the adoption of this anti-discrimination policy, the existence of the practicum class or even the values-affirming message the school wants students to understand and practice.” On the contrary, the court emphasized “the [legal] latitude educational institutions—at any level—must have to further legitimate curricular objectives.”

Indeed, the university had good reason to require counseling students—especially those studying to be school counselors—to treat diverse populations. A school counselor who refuses to counsel anyone with regard to nonmarital, nonheterosexual relationships will struggle to find clients: Nearly four in five Americans have had sex by age 21; more than half have done so by the time they turn 18, while only 6 percent of women and 2 percent of men are married by that age.

In any event, withholding service from entire classes of people violates professional ethical rules even for nonschool counselors. Although the ACA permits client referrals in certain circumstances, the agency’s brief in Ward’s case emphasized that counselors may not refuse to treat entire groups. Ward, in sum, “violated the ACA Code of Ethics by refusing to counsel clients who may wish to discuss homosexual relationships, as well as others who fail to comport with her religious teachings, e.g., persons who engage in ‘fornication.'”

But Ward’s approach would have been unethical even if, in theory, she were permitted to withhold service from each and every client seeking counseling related to nonmarital sex (or even marital sex by same-sex couples). Because in many cases, the need for referral would arise well into the counseling relationship. And as the trial court explained, “a client may seek counseling for depression, or issues with their parents, and end up discussing a homosexual relationship.” No matter what the reason, mid-counseling referrals harm clients, and such referrals are even more harmful if they happen because the counselor disapproves of the client.

Fortunately, Ward did not win the sweeping right to harm her clients or otherwise upend professional counseling standards. Rather, the court explained that “the even-handed enforcement of a neutral policy”—such as the ACA’s ethical rules—”is likely to steer clear of the First Amendment’s free-speech and free-exercise protections.” (Full disclosure: I worked on an amicus brief in support of the university when at Americans United.)

Ward’s lawyers pretended that she won the case, but she ended up settling it for relatively little. She received only $75,000; and although the expulsion was removed from her record, she was not reinstated. Without a graduate counseling degree, she cannot become a licensed counselor.

Cash v. Hofherr

The latest anti-gay counseling salvo comes from Andrew Cash, whose April 2016 lawsuit against Missouri State University attempts to rely on yet murkier facts and could wind up, on appeal, in front of the more conservative U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. In addition to his range of constitutional claims (freedom of speech, free exercise of religion, equal protection of law), he has added a claim under the Missouri Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The complaint describes Cash as “a Christian with sincerely-held beliefs”—as opposed to insincere ones, apparently—”on issues of morality.” Cash started his graduate counseling program at Missouri State University in September 2007. The program requires a clinical internship, which includes 240 hours of in-person client contact. Cash decided to do his clinical internship at Springfield Marriage and Family Institute, which appeared on the counseling department’s list of approved sites. Far from holding anti-Christian bias, Cash’s instructor agreed that his proposed class presentation on “Christian counseling and its unique approach and value to the Counseling profession” was an “excellent” idea.

But the presentation itself revealed that Cash intended to discriminate against LGBTQ patients. In response to a question during the presentation, the head of the Marriage and Family Institute stated that “he would counsel gay persons as individuals, but not as couples, because of his religious beliefs,” and that he would “refer the couple for counseling to other counselors he knew who did not share his religious views.” Because discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation violates ACA guidelines, the university determined that Cash should not continue counseling at the Marriage and Family Institute and that it would be removed from the approved list of placements. Cash suggested, however, that he should be able to withhold treatment from same-sex couples.

All this took place in 2011. The complaint (both the original and amended versions) evades precisely what happened between 2012 and 2014, when Cash was finally expelled. You get the sense that Cash’s lawyers at the Thomas More Society are trying to yadda-yadda-yadda the most important facts of the case.

In any event, the complaint does acknowledge that when Cash applied for a new internship, he both ignored the university’s instructions that the previous hours were not supposed to count toward his requirement, and appeared to be “still very much defend[ing] his previous internship stating that there was nothing wrong with it”—thus suggesting that he would continue to refuse to counsel same-sex couples. He continued to defend his position in later meetings with school officials; by November 2014, the university removed him from the program.

Yet in challenging this expulsion, Cash’s complaint says that he was merely “expressing his Christian worldview regarding a hypothetical situation concerning whether he would provide counseling services to a gay/homosexual couple.”

That’s more than just a worldview, though. It also reflects his intent to discriminate against a class of people—in a manner that violates his program’s requirements and the ACA guidelines. Whether hypothetically or otherwise, Cash stated and reiterated that he would withhold treatment from same-sex couples. A law student who stated, as part of his clinic, that he would refuse to represent Christian clients would be announcing his intent to violate the rules of professional responsibility, and the law school could and would remove him from the school’s legal clinic. And they could and would do so even if a Christian client had yet to walk in the door.

But maybe this was just a big misunderstanding, and Cash would, in practice, be willing and able to counsel same-sex couples? Not so, said Cash’s lawyer from the Thomas More Society, speaking about the case to Christian news outlet WORLD: “I think Christians have to go on the offensive, or it’s going to be a situation like Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible, where you aren’t safe to have a guest in your home, with the demands of the gay mob.” Yikes.

Although Cash seems to want a maximalist decision allowing counselors and counseling students to withhold service from LGBTQ couples, it remains to be seen how the case will turn out. The complaint appears to elide two years’ worth of key facts in order to present Cash’s claims as sympathetically as possible; even if the trial court were to rule in favor of the university after more factual development, Cash would have the opportunity to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, one of the country’s most conservative federal appeals courts.

More generally, we’re still early in the legal battles over attempts to use religious freedom rights as grounds to discriminate; only a few courts across the country have weighed in. So no matter how extreme Cash or his lawyers may seem, it’s too early to count them out.

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The cases brought by Keeton, Ward, and Cash not only attempt to undermine anti-discrimination policies. They also seek to change the nature of the counselor-client relationship. Current norms provide that a counselor is a professional who provides a service to a client. But the plaintiffs in these cases seem to think that counseling a patient is no different than lecturing a passerby in the town square, in that counseling a patient necessarily involves expressing the counselor’s personal and religious beliefs. Courts have thus far rejected these attempts to redefine the counselor-patient relationship, just as they have turned away attempts to challenge bans on “reparative therapy.”

The principles underlying the courts’ decisions protect more than just LGBTQ clients. As the 11th Circuit explained in Keeton, the university trains students to “be competent to work with all populations, and that all students not impose their personal religious values on their clients, whether, for instance, they believe that persons ought to be Christians rather than Muslims, Jews or atheists, or that homosexuality is moral or immoral.” Licensed professionals are supposed to help their clients, not treat them as prospective converts.