FIRE Celebrates a Year of Victories for Liberty

December 30, 2004

PHILADELPHIA, December 30, 2004—2004 was a landmark year for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which enjoyed major victories on college campuses across the country as well as in our nation’s courts.  As the year draws to an end, FIRE reviews some of its most important achievements of the year and looks ahead to new challenges for 2005 and beyond.


                                                                                              


The year began on a high note when Pennsylvania’s Shippensburg University finally agreed to abandon its speech code weeks after a federal judge ruled it unconstitutional in late 2003.  The legal case against Shippensburg, which was brought by FIRE Legal Network attorney and now-president of FIRE David French, was the first lawsuit of FIRE’s Speech Codes Litigation Project, which aims to rid our nation’s public colleges of unconstitutional speech codes.  Read more about the Shippensburg case here.  Another Speech Codes Litigation Project lawsuit, in cooperation with the Alliance Defense Fund, forced Texas Tech University to repeal speech restrictions that at one point limited “free speech” activities to one tiny gazebo on campus.  Read more about the Texas Tech University case here.  The Project continued in June when FIRE, with FIRE Legal Network attorney Robert Goodman, took aim at one of America’s largest state university systems, launching its fourth speech code lawsuit against the State University of New York at Brockport.  Read more about the case at SUNY Brockport here.


 


FIRE also experienced great success in defending freedom of association and religious liberty on campus in 2004.  During the summer, FIRE led a coalition of Christian and Muslim student organizations in successfully convincing Ohio State University to amend a “nondiscrimination” policy that unduly restricted the rights of religious groups.  Ohio State’s religious student organizations are now free to define themselves and make decisions according to their respective faiths.  Read more about the case at Ohio State University here.  In the spring, FIRE won a similar fight at Purdue University, which had threatened the rights of a Christian women’s group because it dared to use religious criteria to make decisions.  FIRE convinced Purdue’s administration to exempt all religious organizations from its overbroad “nondiscrimination” policy.  Read more about the case at Purdue University here.  FIRE also won a battle at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where administrators had refused to recognize a campus chapter of the NAACP.  FIRE intervened, and a student chapter of the NAACP secured its right to exist at CUA in October.  Read more about the case at CUA here.


 


Even in the face of FIRE’s victories, however, 2004 witnessed a growing abuse of “harassment” accusations to punish speech that the First Amendment would clearly protect.  At the University of New Hampshire, a student was evicted from his dorm room—and forced to live out of his car—because he posted a satirical flier that others perceived to be “offensive.”  Only after FIRE focused public outrage on UNH’s actions was the punishment rescinded.  Read more about the UNH case here.  Administrators at Occidental College in Los Angeles used similar tactics when they fired and threatened to severely punish a student radio host for “harassment” based on rude on-air jokes.  FIRE’s fight against Occidental continues, but its involvement ensured that the student successfully graduated, and the college has made no further attempts to enforce its unlawful punishment.  Read more about the Occidental College case here.  


 


Moving beyond the realm of college students, FIRE successfully defended Rhode Island College professor Lisa Church after she was accused of harassment for refusing to punish constitutionally protected student speech that some found “offensive.”  RIC’s faculty union subsequently filed a grievance against RIC’s speech code, dubbing the campus a “careful speech zone” in light of the administration’s crusade against Professor Church.  Read more about the case at RIC here.  FIRE also joined a group of concerned law professors as a “friend of the court” in the Lyle v. Warner Brothers sexual harassment case, in which California’s Supreme Court will decide whether the bawdy banter that was part of the creative process for writers of the popular sitcom Friends could constitute sexual harassment of individuals listening to the writers’ meetings.  The wrong decision in Lyle could have frightening consequences for free speech, especially on college and university campuses.  Read more about FIRE’s involvement in the Lyle case here.


 


Another disturbing trend in 2004 was the increasing use of pretexts to punish unpopular expression.  FIRE’s major triumph in this area was its victory at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), which punished a student for posting a flier advertising a speech by a black conservative.  “Offended” students called the police to stop student Steve Hinkle from posting the flier, and later claimed that the presence of the flier (and of the police that they called) “disrupted” an informal meeting.  After Cal Poly refused to rescind its punishment of Hinkle, FIRE and the Center for Individual Rights helped Hinkle file a lawsuit against Cal Poly, which eventually agreed to expunge Hinkle’s disciplinary record relating to the incident, to permit him to post fliers, and to pay $40,000 in attorney’s fees.  Read more about the Cal Poly case here.  Administrators across the country used similar excuses to censor conservative students’ “affirmative action bake sales”—protests designed to satirize race-based admissions programs.  At the University of California at Irvine, administrators contended the protest violated a nondiscrimination policy, whereas a bake sale at the College of William and Mary was labeled “abusive.”  FIRE successfully intervened in these and several similar cases on behalf of free expression.  Read more about affirmative action bake sale cases here and hereFinally, at the City University of New York’s Brooklyn College, administrators used sham claims of improper procedure to dissolve the student government and prevent consideration of an “academic freedom” resolution.  The decision was nullified after FIRE’s intervention.  Read more about the Brooklyn College case here.


 


FIRE also led successful campaigns to provoke and impact public dialogue about individual rights in higher education in 2004.  FIRE’s work was featured in USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the New York Post, and US News and World Report.  Read news stories about FIRE cases and by FIRE staff members here.  FIRE was also featured in filmmaker Evan Coyne Maloney’s acclaimed documentary, “Brainwashing 101.”  FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Greg Lukianoff appears extensively in the film, which investigates abuses of individual rights on campuses across the country—particularly FIRE’s successful case at Cal Poly.  Read more about “Brainwashing 101.”


 


“While FIRE has made progress on many fronts this year, there is still a great deal of work to be done in defending the rights of college and university students and faculty members,” remarked FIRE’s French.  “The abuse of ‘harassment’ regulations and the use of false pretexts to punish student expression may continue to get worse before it gets better.  Yet FIRE’s continuing victories against speech codes and in individual cases, as well as the growing popularity of our education programs, show promise that the battle for individual rights in higher education is one that we can—and will—win.”


 


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:


Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; greg@thefire.org


David French, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; david.french@thefire.org