Federal Court: University of Cincinnati Free Speech Zone Violates First Amendment, ‘Cannot Stand’

By June 12, 2012

CINCINNATI, June 12, 2012—In a ringing victory for student rights, a federal district court declared today that the University of Cincinnati’s (UC’s) tiny "free speech zone" violates the First Amendment. In his order enjoining enforcement of the challenged free speech zone policy, United States District Judge Timothy S. Black held that UC’s free speech zone "violates the First Amendment and cannot stand." The suit was filed by Ohio’s 1851 Center for Constitutional Law in cooperation with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). 

"Once again, a federal court has been forced to remind a public university of its constitutional obligation to uphold the free speech rights of its students," FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. "Ohioans should be pleased at the court’s decision but outraged that a public college was willing to waste taxpayer money defending a policy that was manifestly unconstitutional from the very start."

Prior to today’s court order, UC had required all "demonstrations, pickets, and rallies" to be held in a "Free Speech Area" that comprises 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."  

Today’s order prohibits UC from enforcing the policy, finding that "the University has simply offered no explanation of its compelling interest in restricting all demonstrations, rallies, and protests from all but one designated public forum on campus." The court further notes that it "would be compelled to find the policy unconstitutionally vague on its face." 

In February, the University of Cincinnati chapter of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) and its president, student Christopher 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. 

On February 22, YAL and Morbitzer filed suit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, Western Division, challenging UC’s policy. Ohio attorney Curt C. Hartman joined the 1851 Center’s Ryan Walters and Maurice Thompson as co-counsel. Working in conjunction with the 1851 Center, FIRE aided Morbitzer in finding counsel and filing suit. 

UC has been on notice that its policy is 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 FIRE’s annual list of the worst colleges for free speech in the country, published in The Huffington Post.  

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

"Today, the University of Cincinnati was reminded that free speech on campus isn’t optional—it’s fundamental," said FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Will Creeley. 

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