First Amendment Defender FIRE Coordinates Four Free Speech Lawsuits against Public Universities

July 1, 2014

By Morgan Chalfant at Red Alert Politics

In a continued effort to stand up for free speech on college campuses, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) announced its participation in four lawsuits Tuesday to uphold the First Amendment rights of students and faculty in our nation.

The organization announced these suits as part of its “Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project,” which was launched at a press conference Tuesday in Washington, D.C., at the National Press Club. FIRE President Greg Lukianoff described the project as a “massive litigation effort” that the organization is taking up in partnership with a team of lawyers at Davis Wright Tremaine in order to put an end to the massive free speech “scandal” at our public universities.

According to FIRE, the suits take aim at free speech codes at Iowa State University, Citrus College in California, Chicago State University and Ohio University.

In Iowa, the university has repeatedly rejected t-shirt designs for the student chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML ISU) and created regulations designed to hinder the group’s ability to engage in political advocacy. According to its press release, FIRE argues that the university’s actions conflict with how it treats other groups on campus and that the policy created to work against NORML ISU “violates the First Amendment by confusing political advocacy with illegal conduct.”

At Citrus College, an administrator threatened to kick a student off campus for circulating a petition in protest of the NSA’s surveillance of U.S. citizens outside of the college’s minuscule free speech zone. FIRE alleges that the college has “speech-repressive policies” that remain despite earlier litigation, citing another First Amendment lawsuit against Citrus coordinated and won by FIRE in 2003.

The organization is helping to defend two Chicago State University professors who write for the blog CSU Faculty Voice that frequently criticizes the administration. After demanding the blog be shut down and threatening one of the professors with legal action, the university is now attempting to use its new “cyberbullying policy” to bring an end to the website.

Finally, at Ohio University, FIRE is going to bat for a member of the Students Defending Students (SDS) group, which helps students at the university accused of misconduct on campus. The university has successfully forced the SDS members to stop wearing t-shirts with one of the group’s slightly risqué slogans, and FIRE says Ohio University’s “vague and overly broad speech codes” threaten SDS and student groups like it across campus.

The announcement of these four lawsuits comes only months after FIRE victoriously helped students initiate legal action against Modesto Junior College in California in 2013 after they were told not to hand out copies of the U.S. Constitution on Constitution Day. FIRE got the school to dismantle its free speech zone and change its policies. The organization also coordinated a similar suit against the University of Hawaii-Hilo in April, and the case has yet to be resolved.

FIRE’s “Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project” seeks to “send a message” to universities with restrictive and unconstitutional speech codes while raising awareness about threats to the First Amendment that face students at public institutions.

Schools: Citrus College Chicago State University Ohio University Iowa State University Cases: FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project Citrus College – Stand Up For Speech Chicago State University – Stand Up For Speech Iowa State University – Stand Up For Speech Ohio University – Stand Up For Speech