After Free Speech Victory in Federal Court, FIRE Sends Warning to Public Universities Violating the First Amendment

By September 30, 2008

PHILADELPHIA, September 30, 2008Today, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) sent letters to administrators at twenty public colleges and universities in New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania warning them to abandon their speech codes in light of the recent Third Circuit decision overturning Temple University’s unconstitutional code. All of the colleges FIRE contacted are rated as “red light” schools in FIRE’s Spotlight speech codes database, meaning that they retain policies that unconstitutionally restrict student speech.

“For decades, college and university speech codes have been overturned by court after court, and for nearly ten years FIRE has railed against those schools that brazenly continue to maintain them. In light of the DeJohn v. Temple University opinion and now FIRE’s letter, no public university in the Third Circuit can credibly argue that it did not know that campus speech codes are forbidden by the Constitution,” said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. “Universities, especially those in the Third Circuit, maintain speech codes at their peril.”

The twenty public colleges and universities receiving today’s letter have at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech, as FIRE documents in its searchable speech codes database, Spotlight: The Campus Freedom Resource. This August, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit’s ruling in DeJohn v. Temple University found that Temple University’s former speech code was unconstitutional, making the policies at these schools even less legally defensible.

Temple’s former code prohibited, among other things, “generalized sexist remarks and behavior,” making free speech at Temple contingent on wildly overbroad and vague definitions. This unconstitutional restriction on speech was overturned by the Third Circuit, which, in an opinion authored by Judge D. Brooks Smith, stated that “[d]iscussion by adult students in a college classroom should not be restricted.” The court found that Temple’s code “provide[d] no shelter for core protected speech” and was facially overbroad.

“The schools that FIRE writes today maintain policies that are as bad, if not worse, than the policies ruled unconstitutional in DeJohn,” William Creeley, FIRE’s Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, said. “These schools must understand that if these restrictions are challenged in court, they will fail, and that they have both a legal and a moral duty to their students and faculty to dismantle these speech codes.”

Today’s letter was sent to officials at California University of Pennsylvania, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, Clarion University of Pennsylvania, Delaware State University, East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, Lincoln University, Mansfield University of Pennsylvania, Millersville University of Pennsylvania, Montclair State University, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Pennsylvania State UniversityUniversity Park, The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, Rutgers UniversityNew Brunswick, Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, The College of New Jersey, West Chester University of Pennsylvania, and William Paterson University.

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.

CONTACT:

William Creeley, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 212-582-3191; will@thefire.org

Schools: Temple University