Academic Freedom | News

4 Lawsuits Target Campus Anti-Speech Rules, More To Follow

A Washington, D.C. organization is suing three universities and one college to challenge what it considers "unconstitutional speech codes in academia." That includes attempts by one school to censor a faculty blog critical of the administration and trustees.

This move by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) follows two other similar lawsuits filed earlier in district courts and is the precursor — FIRE promises — to future suits. In each case FIRE and its legal partner, First Amendment attorney Robert Corn-Revere, are filing the suit on behalf of students or faculty and accusing the administration of censoring free speech.

The courtroom "campaign" is intended to abolish speech codes in public colleges across the country. "The lawsuits will continue until campuses understand that time is finally up for unconstitutional speech codes in academia," said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff in a statement.

In fact, he added, as one lawsuit is settled, another one will be filed against a different school in that same geographic boundary, "sending a message that unless public colleges obey the law, they will be sued."

During a press conference Lukianoff said that the "first modern generation of speech codes" was defeated in federal court in 1989. In spite of that, "Campus speech codes are still alive and thriving. The restrictions on free expression somehow remain the rule rather than the exception, even though speech codes have been successfully challenged in more than two dozen lawsuits over the years."

FIRE maintains that 58 percent of public universities have speech codes that are "unambiguously unconstitutional."

"Many universities maintain their speech codes not just because they may actually believe in a mythical right not to be offended on campus but because they believe there is no 'downside,'" Lukianoff said. "They say to themselves, 'Well, maybe I can point to our speech codes if we get sued for harassment, discrimination or personal injury. And it's not very likely we'll have to go to court for violating students' free speech rights. So let's keep our speech codes.'... In this amoral calculus free speech loses. FIRE has therefore decided that it must change the incentive structure to one that favors freedom of speech on college campuses rather than suppression of dissent."

FIRE's latest salvo has caught up these four schools:

The lawsuit against Chicago State charges that administrators have "threatened legal action" and "other behind-the-scenes actions" to shut down a blog titled "CSU Faculty Voice," which offers sometimes scathing descriptions of what it views as university mismanagement. For example, a June entry by Robert Bionaz, an associate professor of history, examined the university president's evaluation criteria as stated in his contract and concluded that his "performance as Chicago State's president has resulted in more failures than successes and his willful transformation of the university into a haven for well connected administrative hires seems directly related to a number of the woes experienced by the school."

"Ultimately," the lawsuit stated, Chicago State adopted a cyberbullying policy that "broadly prohibits electronic communication that may have an 'adverse impact on the work environment of a CSU faculty member or employee." By these actions, FIRE charges, the university "unlawfully restricts the free exercise of constitutional rights to free expression."

At Citrus College, a student is challenging the existence of a "free speech zone" that the college had already agreed to eliminate following a 2003 lawsuit. The suit also questions the need for student organizations "to get approval before they may hold or publicize events" as well as a policy that allows campus administrators "to punish any speech deemed 'inappropriate' or 'offensive.'"

Two students at Iowa State are fighting censorship of t-shirt designs they created for a student chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML ISU). In that case, the lawsuit charges, administration adopted new trademark rules "expressly to restrict NORML ISU's [t-shirt] message," one of which read, "NORML ISU Supports Legalizing Marijuana."

In the fourth suit, also involving t-shirt slogans, an Ohio U student is fighting a decision by his school to prevent members of a student group that defends fellow students accused of campus disciplinary offenses from wearing shirts that state, "We get you off for free." The group asserts that it first began using the slogan in the 1970s; this year administrators prohibited the shirts, citing a speech code that bans any "act that degrades, demeans or disgraces" another person. In this case the university said the logo "objectified women" and "promoted prostitution."

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