Federal Court Delivers Final Blow to U. of Cincinnati ‘Free Speech Zone’

By August 22, 2012

CINCINNATI, August 22, 2012—In a major victory for student rights, a federal district court issued a final ruling today prohibiting the University of Cincinnati (UC) from reinstating its tiny “free speech zone.” In today’s order, United States District Judge Timothy S. Black issued a permanent injunction against UC’s unconstitutional system of speech restriction.

The court’s decision comes hard on the heels of yesterday’s startling resignation of UC President Gregory H. Williams, who reportedly did not provide any explanation for his sudden decision to quit a mere week before students return to campus.

“Limiting student expression to just 0.1% of campus was bad enough. Threatening to call the police if students were caught gathering signatures for a petition was even worse. The decision to waste taxpayer money defending such unconstitutional censorship was completely indefensible,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “President Williams’ surprise decision to step down should be welcomed, as the University of Cincinnati should have never picked this doomed fight with the Bill of Rights.”

Per today’s ruling, UC may not restrict student speech in the outdoor areas of UC’s campus unless the restriction is “narrowly tailored to serve a compelling University interest.”

Prior to the lawsuit, UC had required all “demonstrations, pickets, and rallies” to be held in a “Free Speech Area” that comprised just 0.1% of the university’s 137-acre West Campus. University policy further required that all expressive activity in the free speech zone be registered with the university a full ten working days in advance, threatening that “[a]nyone violating this policy may be charged with trespassing.”

The University of Cincinnati chapter of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) and its president, student Christopher Morbitzer, filed suit on February 22, 2012, in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, Western Division, challenging UC’s policy. The lawsuit was coordinated by Ohio’s 1851 Center for Constitutional Law in cooperation with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

In February, YAL and Morbitzer had sought permission to gather signatures and talk to students across campus in support of a statewide “right to work” ballot initiative, but the request was denied. Morbitzer was told that if any YAL members were seen “walk[ing] around campus” gathering signatures, campus security would be alerted.

UC had been on notice that its policy was unconstitutional for more than four years. FIRE named UC’s policy its “Speech Code of the Month” in December 2007, calling it “truly shameful” that a public university “threatens students with criminal prosecution merely for exercising their constitutionally protected rights outside of the paltry area it has designated for free speech.” FIRE also wrote to UC in December 2008, explaining that UC’s free speech zone represented a serious threat to liberty on campus. In March 2012, UC topped FIREs annual list of the worst colleges for free speech in the country, published in The Huffington Post.  After the court issued a preliminary injunction against UC on July 12, the university revised its speech code to comply. Today’s ruling will make this change permanent.

FIRE’s efforts have defeated similar free speech zones on campuses across the nation, including the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, West Virginia University, the University of Nevada at Reno, Citrus College in California, Valdosta State University in Georgia, and Texas Tech 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.

The 1851 Center for Constitutional Law is a non-profit, non-partisan legal center dedicated to protecting the constitutional rights of Ohioans from government abuse. The 1851 Center litigates constitutional issues related to property rights, voting rights, regulation, taxation, and search and seizures.

CONTACT:
Will Creeley, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; will@thefire.org
Maurice Thompson, Executive Director, 1851 Center for Constitutional Law: 614-340-9817; mthompson@ohioconstitution.org

Schools: University of Cincinnati