LUBBOCK, TX—In response to the pressure of a free-speech lawsuit and student demands for constitutional rights, Texas Tech University is backing away from at least some of its severe restrictions upon free expression. In July, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) coordinated a lawsuit to force Texas Tech—a public university with 28,000 students—to eliminate a speech code that had designated only one 280-square-foot gazebo for free speech. In response, the university has greatly expanded the number of free speech zones from one small area to six substantially larger areas.
“We are heartened that the suit and student activism have prompted Texas Tech to move in the direction of greater freedom of speech. Students are now granted free speech areas that can be measured in acres instead of feet,” said Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy. “However, the university’s speech policies are still far too restrictive. Texas Tech should not be fighting for every possible bit of repression it might be allowed under the law. Its students deserve to be educated in an atmosphere that celebrates—rather than quarantines—freedom.” The federal lawsuit was filed by the Alliance Defense Fund and the Liberty Legal Institute as part of FIRE’s Speech Codes Litigation Project, which aims to overturn public university speech codes in every federal circuit.
Texas Tech originally required students to obtain a permit six days in advance for any activity on campus outside of the tiny Free Speech Gazebo. The revised code provides for five additional, larger free speech zones, for a total of nine acres, and it reduces the permit delay to two business days. Restrictions on what may be said at Texas Tech, however, remain unchanged. Ominously for political and controversial speech, the university’s speech codes still define “harassment” as communications “intended to intimidate or humiliate any person.” Such an overbroad and vague speech restriction could suppress pro-choice and pro-life rallies, pro-war and anti-war demonstrations, and almost any other student speech about a divisive political issue. Texas Tech’s speech codes give as examples of sexual harassment the use of the terms “boy,” “girl,” and “honey” for adults. Further, Texas Tech also forbids advertisements that do not meet the hazy standard of “good taste.”
Joining FIRE’s battle for free speech rights on Texas Tech’s campus is a new campus group, Students for Free Speech (SFS). SFS pressured the Texas Tech administration throughout the fall semester, organizing a campus-wide petition drive that attracted more than 900 student signatures in support of free speech. When administrators failed to respond, SFS members organized a creative protest event: a “funeral procession for free speech,” complete with eulogies, a clergyman, and a full-size wooden coffin. SFS is also conducting a public information campaign that places accurate information about Texas Tech’s speech code in the hands of students, the public, and the local media. FIRE also has publicly exposed Texas Tech’s repressive policies in both local and national media and in testimony before the United States Senate.
FIRE’s lawsuit continues, with both parties having filed motions for summary judgment. A court decision on the constitutionality of Texas Tech’s speech code is expected soon. Stay tuned for further developments.
Speech Codes Litigation Project Update
This year saw the birth of FIRE’s Speech Codes Litigation Project—a national effort to overturn speech codes at public universities once and for all. FIRE’s nationwide effort has already brought two other important victories for free speech on campus:
- Shippensburg University (PA)—FIRE Legal Network attorneys David A. French and William Adair Bonner sued Shippensburg in April over its speech codes. In September, a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction against the university to prevent it from enforcing its speech code while the suit was in progress. The parties now have until December 17 to settle or the case will proceed to final judgment.
- Citrus College (CA)—Citrus College was sued in May for a speech code that quarantined free speech to three small areas of campus. When sued by FIRE Legal Network attorney Carol Sobel, Citrus College quickly abolished its free speech zones and revoked a frightening policy banning “offensive…expression or language” which could have been used to make virtually any controversial speech illegal.
FIRE will file suit against unconstitutional speech codes in every federal judicial circuit and will coordinate additional suits in its Speech Codes Litigation Project in the near future.
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 seen by visiting www.thefire.org.
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Rich Jefferson, Director of Media Relations, Alliance Defense Fund: 480-444-0020; email@example.com