Lawsuits Aim at Campus Free-Speech Limits

July 1, 2014

By Mary Beth Marklein and Hoai-Tran Bui at USA Today

Lawsuits filed Tuesday by an education foundation accuse three state universities and a community college of restricting free speech of students and faculty, the first public volley of a nationwide campaign to challenge campus policies it says are unconstitutional.

The cases involve T-shirt designs for student organizations at Iowa State and Ohio universities, a faculty blog at Chicago State University and a student at Citrus College in Glendora, Calif., who says he was told he would be kicked off campus unless he stayed within a designated area while seeking signatures for a petition.

More lawsuits are in the pipeline. Organizers say cases are to be filed in each of 11 federal circuit courts, and after a court rules or a college agrees to a settlement, a new case will be filed in the same circuit.

“Our big hope is to stand up for student speech across the country and send a message to universities that speech that is unpopular in any way – funny messages or controversial – we want the speech codes to be changed, we want to make it that students will be able to have their say,” says Isaac Smith, an Ohio University senior who says he was told language on a T-shirt was “inappropriate.”

The legal actions are being coordinated by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based non-profit that advises students, faculty and others who believe their rights have been restricted. Two recent lawsuits, against Modesto Junior College in California and the University of Hawaii-Hilo, served as “dry runs” for the legal campaign announced Tuesday.

Since its founding in 1999, the foundation, known as FIRE, has focused mostly on resolving specific disputes and trying to embarrass universities by publicizing incidents it views as egregious.

The organization now plans to step up its legal attacks because its primary strategy “is just not enough,” says president Greg Lukianoff. By FIRE’s count, 58% of 427 colleges it studied last year have objectionable speech codes.

FIRE has become a thorn in the side of college administrations, which generally view campus speech policies as a way to ensure civility and tolerance as students and faculty debate contentious issues of the day. Many schools, for example, designate a particular area of campus as a free-speech zone and adopt conduct codes that require students to be respectful of differences.

Brett Sokolow, founder of The National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, a legal consultant for colleges, says he discourages colleges from punishing students for violating such policies because it “always becomes controversial.”

“With our clients we make them understand that there’s a balance to strike between protecting the safety of a community and addressing speech that is threatening or hurtful,” he says. Regarding FIRE, he adds, “I don’t like the way they take on the cases, but most of the time when they take on a campus they’re right.”

Among details of lawsuits filed Tuesday:

• Ohio University told members of a campus group called Students Defending Students not to wear a T-shirt featuring the phrase “We get you off for free,” saying it objectified women and promoted prostitution, a copy of the lawsuit says. The lawsuit argues that the student code of conduct, which requires “civility in disagreement,” is too vague and too broad.

• A student at Citrus College in Glendora, Calif., was told last year by an administrator that he would be kicked off campus if he did not stay inside the school’s free-speech zone while attempting to gather signatures for a petition denouncing the National Security Agency. Campus officials told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune that many colleges have similar zones, which can be used only by members of recognized student groups.

• Chicago State University officials have tried to shut down a faculty blog that is highly critical of the administration. The school’s lawyers have threatened legal action for improper use of the university’s trademark and logo and has charged one professor with violating a recently adopted cyberbullying policy, the Chicago Tribune reported.

• Iowa State University officials rejected a T-shirt design submitted by a student chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, calling the design unnecessarily “sensational” and saying the shirt’s message — “NORML ISU Supports Legalizing Marijuana” — suggests the university supports illegal behavior, court documents show.

Schools targeted by FIRE typically argue that their policies and responses are mischaracterized.

In February, Modesto Junior College revised its speech policies as part of a $50,000 settlement with a student who says he was told he could not hand out copies of the U.S. Constitution unless he stayed within a designated area on campus and requested permission at least five days in advance. A video of the student’s encounter with campus employees, posted on YouTube last September by FIRE, garnered more than 245,000 viewings.

“Sometimes institutions of higher education are forced to settle, even when they are being misrepresented, to avoid spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees,” Joan Smith, chancellor of the Yosemite Community College District, wrote in a column for the Modesto Bee. “Either way, it’s a losing proposition for the college.”

But Iowa State student Erin Furleigh, who is involved in the NORML lawsuit, says students should not be afraid to voice their opinions

“We don’t want anyone to be made to feel smaller than administrators just because they’re a student,” she says. “We want them to feel like having an opinion and having a belief isn’t wrong.”

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