MONTGOMERY, Ala., October 31, 2005—Today, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) targeted the fifth university in its highly successful Speech Code Litigation project.
Attorneys filed a federal lawsuit against Troy University in Alabama for violating the First Amendment by maintaining a restrictive speech code and censoring student artwork. FIRE’s continued effort to systematically demolish unconstitutional campus speech restrictions has already tasted victory at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, Texas Tech University, the State University of New York at Brockport, and California’s Citrus College.
FIRE Legal Network attorneys Jim Parkman and William White of Parkman, Adams, and White in Dothan, Ala., with assistance from Gabriel Sterling of Troutman Sanders LLP in Washington, D.C., filed the lawsuit on behalf of Blake Dews, a senior art major at Troy’s main campus.
“The case against Troy University is yet another step in FIRE’s effort to rid the nation of scandalous and unconstitutional speech codes on college campuses,” noted FIRE President David French. “Speech codes like the one in effect at Troy University are incompatible with a free society.”
Despite its obligation as a public university to uphold the First Amendment, and its explicit assurance to students that it will respect the rights of students to “[f]ree inquiry, expression, and assembly,” Troy’s speech code is extraordinarily overbroad and vague. Troy’s handbook states, for instance, that a student can face punishment up to and including expulsion for “indecent… expression”; “[a]ny activity that creates a mentally abusive, oppressive, or harmful situation for another;” and for “[u]se of the mail, telephone, computer and electronic messages, or any other means of communication to insult…or demean another.”
“If insulting or demeaning people is grounds for expulsion at Troy, I am surprised there are any students left on campus,” remarked FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Greg Lukianoff. “Comedians, politicians, activists, or any others who dare to criticize apparently have no place there.”
The school has also declared “jokes, or other verbal, graphic, or physical conduct relating to” characteristics including “age” and “religion” to be harassment, and also bans “derogatory or demeaning comments about gender, whether sexual or not,” “gossip,” or “suggestive” and “insulting” comments.
“No school that is bound by the First Amendment can ban categories as broad and amorphous as ‘gossip’ or ‘suggestive comments,’” stated FIRE’s Lukianoff. “Such absurdly unconstitutional policies not only harm debate and candor on campus, but also dangerously trivialize real harassment.”
Beyond enacting unconstitutional policies, Troy has also engaged in unconstitutional art censorship. In the fall semester of 2003, plaintiff Blake Dews, an art student, was assigned to create an original work of art on the theme of “birth.” Dews created a photographic display on that theme, including several photos that featured nude models. Dews’ artwork was not even close to the definition of obscenity under federal or state law, nor was it the only one that included nudity. A sign was also posted in the entrance of the exhibit advising patrons that the exhibit contained some nudity, so that no visitors would be exposed unexpectedly to photographs they might find offensive.
Dews received an “A” and won an award for the artwork. Yet in early 2004, Dews was notified by his professor that three of the photos featuring nudity would have to be removed. Dews refused to remove the photos, and upon returning to the exhibit found that the three photos had been removed without his permission, although other exhibits with nudity remained untouched.
“What is particularly ironic here is that the Supreme Court has determined that if something has a redeeming artistic value, it is by definition not obscene,” attorney Gabriel Sterling said. “The very fact that Blake received an ‘A’ and an award for his art should have made the university aware that the artwork was constitutionally protected expression.”
“A true injustice was done this young man by having the artwork taken out after it was set up, after grades were given, and after the school knew what the situation was,” attorney Jim Parkman concluded. “It turned out to be an unwarranted embarrassment, humiliating and shaming Blake’s good name.”
The lawsuit, filed today in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, also charges Troy with breach of contract, unlawful conditions placed on the receipt of state benefits, and denial of due process and of equal protection of the law.
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 at Troy University can be viewed at thefire.org/troy.
David French, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; email@example.com
William White, Parkman, Adams, and White: 334-792-1900; firstname.lastname@example.org
Gabriel Sterling, Troutman Sanders LLP: 202-274-2911; email@example.com