Academic Freedom Advocates Sue Over SUNY Speech Code

June 14, 2004

Two conservative students are suing the State University of New York (SUNY) at Brockport over its speech code, which they say is unconstitutional. The lawsuit is the fourth in a campaign by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) to rid campuses of policies that violate students’ First Amendment rights.

Under SUNY-Brockport’s speech code, examples of harassment include “cartoons that depict religious figures in compromising situations,” calling someone an “old bag,” and “jokes … making fun of any protected group.” Fearing punishment under the arbitrarily restrictive code, the Brockport College Republicans were recently forced to end distribution of a pamphlet that jokingly urged people to “bring back the blacklist” for liberal celebrities.

The conservative group’s concerns were not unfounded. Last February, when the College Republicans passed out a flyer encouraging members of the college community to end liberal indoctrination on campus, a faculty member declared the flyer harassment and demanded that the group either be denied funding or be shut down altogether.

Greg Lukianoff, director of legal and public advocacy for FIRE, says policies that ban such constitutionally protected expression are all too common on today’s typical American college campus. As to why this is so, he speculates that there may be multiple explanations.

“I think it’s partially some amount of a legal cynicism — that lawyers there think that they should have these codes in order to keep students quiet. In other cases, I think it might be ideological,” Lukianoff says, “but ultimately, schools have these, they’re unconstitutional, and FIRE is determined to make sure that they go away.”

FIRE’s spokesman says one of the most telling things about the policy is what the university defines as non-harassing, protected speech: He says according to the speech code, only “normal, courteous, mutually respectful, comfortable, appropriate, pleasant, non-coercive interaction between employees and students, employees and employees, and students and students, is clearly protected at SUNY-Brockport.”

Lukianoff describes these severe guidelines as “remarkable” and notes, “The First Amendment defines free speech much more broadly than the way SUNY-Brockport does.” He suggests administrators at the New York university must have read the First Amendment to some other country’s constitution.

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Schools: State University of New York – Brockport Cases: State University of New York at Brockport: Speech Code Litigation