The Court Got It Right

August 18, 2008

This month in an important victory for free speech on campus, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that Temple University’s former sexual harassment policy was unconstitutional. While free speech advocates from across the ideological spectrum cheered the Third Circuit’s ruling in DeJohn v. Temple University, some critics expressed dismay at what they deemed a “very ominous” example of “activist judging.” These critics are wrong – and it’s important for both students and university administrators to understand why.

In February of 2006, Christian DeJohn filed a complaint in federal district court alleging that Temple had violated his First Amendment rights by punishing him for political expression. Among other serious allegations, DeJohn’s complaint charged that Temple’s sexual harassment policy (which, for example, prohibited “generalized sexist remarks”) violated his First Amendment right to free expression. DeJohn asserted that he felt inhibited from discussing his views on the role of women in the military, among other issues, and worried that he could be punished under Temple’s policy for expressing his opinions.

Seeking to obviate DeJohn’s First Amendment challenges, Temple revised its sexual harassment policy in 2007 by scrapping the sections of its policy at issue before the district court. Having done so, Temple asked the court to dismiss the portion of DeJohn’s complaint that related to the sexual harassment policy. However, the district court denied Temple’s motion, arguing that nothing prevented Temple from reinstituting the original policy following the conclusion of DeJohn’s suit. In March 2007, the district court found Temple’s now-abandoned sexual harassment policy to be unconstitutional on its face and issued an injunction against its enforcement.

Temple appealed the district court’s ruling to the Third Circuit in April 2007. This month, the Third Circuit ruled in favor of DeJohn, concluding that Temple’s former sexual harassment policy was unconstitutionally overbroad and affirming the lower court’s holding. Explaining that “[d]iscussion by adult students in a college classroom should not be restricted,” the court found that Temple’s former policy prohibited constitutionally protected speech and was therefore unacceptably overbroad.

Some critics of the opinion argue that the court should have found DeJohn’s claims moot since the university voluntarily revised the policy before the appeal was heard. But in the opinion, the Third Circuit rejected the mootness argument. Following U.S. Supreme Court precedent, the court held that a finding of mootness is only appropriate if “it can be said with assurance that there is no reasonable expectation that the alleged violation will recur.” Because Temple, in its appellate brief, defended both the constitutionality of its former policy and its particular necessity on Temple’s campus, the court held that it could not be certain that Temple would not simply reinstate the policy once the litigation was over.

Indeed, Temple’s brief on appeal argued vehemently for the constitutionality of its former policy. Temple’s aggressive defense of its policy was fueled by outside events: between the time the District Court found the policy unconstitutional and the Third Circuit was to hear the appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a significant decision that Temple hoped would change the outcome of its case.

In Morse v. Frederick, decided in June 2007, the Supreme Court held that a public high school did not violate the First Amendment in suspending a student for unfurling a banner that read “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS” at a school-sponsored event. In their appellate brief, Temple seized on Morse and sought to expand its holding. Temple contended that Morse granted public colleges broad authority to restrict the speech of adult college students in the same way that high schools could regulate the speech of their students (who are generally under 18) – an expansion particularly threatening to free speech and academic freedom on college campuses. As a result, Temple argued, its sexual harassment policy was acceptable in the post-Morse environment.

Given Temple’s argument that its sexual harassment policy was constitutionally permissible in light of new legal precedent, it is not surprising – and hardly a mark of activism – that the Third Circuit felt compelled to issue a decision on the case. But in reaching its decision on mootness, the Third Circuit did not fashion new legal principles out of whole cloth. Rather, the court followed the explicit guidance of its own precedent – which, as the opinion notes, “articulate[s] the burden for the party alleging mootness as “‘heavy,’ even ‘formidable.’” Indeed, every aspect of the Third Circuit’s decision relies heavily on appropriate precedent, whether from its own appellate decisions or those of the Supreme Court. If anything, Temple’s brief argued for the more “activist” outcome by claiming that the Supreme Court’s narrow holding concerning high school students in Morse could be used to justify maintaining an overbroad speech code in the collegiate setting. Had the Third Circuit applied a high school case like Morse to colleges and universities, the resulting opinion would have represented a sea change in our legal thinking about college students’ rights, opening the door to the wholesale evisceration of free expression on campus.

Not only is the Third Circuit’s ruling in DeJohn not “activist,” it is not political, as some have charged. DeJohn is squarely in line with 50 years of Supreme Court decisions placing special emphasis on the importance of free speech in higher education, as well as two decades of district court decisions uniformly ruling that at public colleges, speech codes (often masquerading as anti-harassment policies)are unconstitutional. In this case, opposition to Temple’s speech code brought together groups as ideologically varied as the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Christian Legal Society, Feminists for Free Expression, the Student Press Law Center, Students for Academic Freedom, Collegefreedom.org, and the Alliance Defense Fund. If anything, opposition to speech codes has transcended partisan divides, as judges and advocacy organizations from all over the country and the political spectrum agree that such codes are incompatible with fundamental First Amendment freedoms and the unique role of the university in American life.

DeJohn’s critics also argue that the Third Circuit erred by considering DeJohn’s claims against Temple without what they consider to be ample evidence that DeJohn had been specifically harmed by Temple’s sexual harassment policy. Robert M. O’Neil, executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, told Inside Higher Ed that he found the Third Circuit’s opinion to be “very ominous” because he believed the court did not sufficiently consider whether DeJohn was actually affected by the policy. O’Neil said the court offered “no proof that this plaintiff was in any way put at risk or threatened or even reasonably felt threatened by the existence of the policy.”

Facial challenges for overbreadth are a unique, well-established and crucial aspect of First Amendment law. Recognizing that First Amendment rights are “supremely precious in our society,” the Supreme Court developed the overbreadth doctrine to protect speech from the chilling effect that occurs when a law or regulation is written so broadly that it reaches substantial amounts of protected speech. Plaintiffs may challenge allegedly overbroad statutes “as written,” rather than “as applied,” on behalf of those not in front of the court. The idea is that anyone subject to a law or policy that restricts his or her right to freedom of speech may challenge it on behalf of all citizens negatively affected by the constitutional violation.

Contrary to O’Neil’s characterization that there existed “no proof” that DeJohn “reasonably felt threatened” by Temple’s policy, the Third Circuit determined that, as a Temple student, DeJohn suffered from the policy’s existence. As the court noted, DeJohn argued that the policy made him feel “inhibited in expressing his opinions in class concerning women in combat and women in the military.” In other words, the policy had an impermissible “chilling effect” on his right to free expression. DeJohn was “concerned that discussing his social, cultural, political, and/or religious views regarding these issues might be sanctionable by the university” – and by concluding that Temple’s policy “provide[d] no shelter for core protected speech,” the Third Circuit accepted these concerns as legitimate and reasonable. Because the Supreme Court has held that even a fleeting loss of First Amendment freedoms “unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury,” the Third Circuit was absolutely correct in determining that DeJohn had suffered sufficiently to entertain his facial challenge.

The DeJohn opinion should come as no surprise to public universities. District courts have been striking down overbroad harassment policies for nearly 20 years. Rather than reaching unexpectedly “ominous” or “activist” legal conclusions, DeJohn simply provided a reaffirmation of clearly established law.

The Third Circuit adhered strictly to the standard for student-on-student harassment announced by the Supreme Court in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, a 1999 opinion holding that actionable harassment is limited to that behavior so “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive … that the victims are effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.” The Third Circuit made clear in DeJohn that Davis’s standard must be carefully followed, writing that “[a]bsent any requirement akin to a showing of severity or pervasiveness – that is, a requirement that the conduct objectively and subjectively creates a hostile environment or substantially interferes with an individual’s work,” harassment policies like Temple’s provide “no shelter for core protected speech.”

If anything, the most noteworthy aspect of the Third Circuit’s ruling was the court’s refusal to import Morse’s restrictions on student speech into the university setting. That is a victory, because treating the First Amendment rights of university students as functionally equivalent to those of high school students fundamentally confuses the unique pedagogical missions of each level of schooling. The Third Circuit’s clear pronouncement that the First Amendment rights of adult college students must not be abridged should be welcomed by public universities, not feared.

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Schools: Temple University Cases: Temple University: Speech Code Litigation