Group Launches Litigation Campaign to Challenge Campus Speech Codes

July 2, 2014

By Ronald K.L. Collins at Concurring Opinions

July 1, 2014, National Press Club, Washington, D.C. Today, two powerhouses — one a free speech activist, the other a noted First Amendment lawyer — joined forces to challenge campus free speech codes that run afoul of the First Amendment. Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and Robert Corn-Revere, a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine (DWT), announced that the group and the law firm would work together in a litigation campaign to change the free speech culture on many campuses across the nation.

“Unconstitutional campus speech codes have been a national scandal for decades. But today, 25 years after the first of the modern generation of speech codes was defeated in court, 58% of public campuses still hold onto shockingly illiberal codes,” said Lukianoff. “For 15 years, FIRE has fought for free speech on campus using public awareness as our main weapon, but more is needed. Today, we announce the launch of the Stand Up for Speech Litigation Project, an expansive new campaign to eliminate speech codes nationwide.”

“We at Davis Wright Tremaine,” said Corn-Revere, “are honored to be asked to participate on the important work of helping to safeguard First Amendment and due process rights of America’s college campuses as part of FIRE’s Stand Up for Speech Litigation Project. It is a privilege to represent the courageous young women and men, and the faculty members, who have opted not to follow the path of least resistance, but instead have chosen to challenge the exercise of arbitrary and illegal authority. These are acts of civic virtue . . . .”

The DWT litigation team will include input from two seasoned First Amendment lawyers — Ronnie Londonand Lisa Zycherman.

Ohio University — Smith v. McDavis et al The litigation campaign was launched to challenge speech codes at public institutions on behalf of students, student groups, and faculty members. Four lawsuits were filed today in federal district courts:

  1. Iowa State University — Gerlich & Fuleigh v. Leath et al
  2. Chicago State University – Berry & Bionaz v. Chicago State University Board of Trustees
  3. Citrus College — Sinapi-Riddle v. Citrus Community College et al

Three of the student plaintiffs in the lawsuits — Paul Gerlich and Erin Furleigh (Iowa State Univ.) and Isaach Smith (Ohio Univ.) — took part in the press conference. Mr. Smith and his group, Students Defending Students, were told by Ohio University officials that they could not wear certain T-shirts (see photo above) because such actions would violate a school policy that prohibits any “act that degrades, demeans, or disgraces” another student, in this case women. “I’m tired of having my university work so hard to stop people from speaking,” said Mr. Smith.

Over at Iowa State University the fight centered around another objectionable T-shrt, this time one that purportedly violated a school owned trademark (see here).  “I feel bad and I don’t think I should feel bad about it,” Ms. Furleigh complained about censorship against her and her group, the NORML chapter at ISU. “Our university administration has prevented us from even putting the word marijuana on our designs,” Furleigh added.

restrictions on the design of T-shirts for campus organizations at Ohio University and Iowa University,The challenges concern:

  1. engaging in expressive political activities outside a “free speech zone” while seeking signatures for an anti-NSA petition at Citrus College, and
  2. retaliation against professors for statements on a blog, purportedly in violation of Chicago State University’s broad cyberbullying policy.

Starting with Doe v. University of Michigan in 1989, there has been a virtually unbroken string of victories in court challenges to various college campus speech codes.

Meanwhile, Mr. Corn-Revere and his DWT team await a decision in another campus speech case he argued in the 11th Circuit on June 13th of this year — Barnes v. Zaccari. 

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