An art student sued Troy University on Monday, saying the school violated his free speech rights by censoring his artwork and implementing a campus speech code that unconstitutionally restricts speech.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Montgomery, contends Troy officials removed portions of Blake Dews’ artwork because it featured female nudity.
The university issued a statement defending its decision on Dews’ art.
”The photographs in question displayed male full frontal nudity and the university did not consider the photographs to be consistent with our community ‘s standards,” the statement said. ”This is a matter now under litigation and under the advice of our attorney this is the only statement the university will make at this time.”
The suit contends that Troy’s speech code is ”overbroad and vague.”
Troy’s handbook says a student can face punishment up to and including expulsion for ”lewd, indecent, obscene behavior or expression;” for ”activity that creates a mentally abusive, oppressive, or harmful situation for another;” or for use ”of the mail, telephone, computer and electronic messages, or any other means of communication to insult . . . or demean another.”
William White of the Parkman, Adams and White law firm in Dothan represents Dews. White described the student as a ”mild-mannered, quiet-type guy.” The lawsuit is supported by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a national group that has taken on several schools across the country over their speech codes.
Speech codes that threatened discipline for racially or sexually offensive speech became common on campuses in the late 1980s and early 1990s, until courts ruled them unconstitutional, said David French, president of the foundation. ”No speech code has ever been upheld anywhere in the country,” French said.
The foundation has evaluated speech codes across the country and rates them on its Web site. Auburn, Troy, the University of South Alabama and Birmingham-Southern College have speech codes that the organization describes as unconstitutional. Schools in the University of Alabama System and Alabama A&M University have speech codes that rate a caution signal, according to the foundation.
Balancing the right of free speech with attempts to create a safe atmosphere for civil discourse is a constant struggle on college campuses. Last year, the University of Alabama faculty senate called on the school to adopt a policy ”restricting any behavior which demeans or reduces an individual” after a visiting comedian ridiculed a gay student.
Students responded with a resolution calling for unfettered free speech.
Auburn suspended students and implemented aggressive anti-discrimination policies after a widely publicized 2001 incident in which fraternity members dressed up in blackface. A judge ordered the students reinstated, and Auburn settled a lawsuit that resulted.
”The speech codes are well-meaning, but they go too far and restrain free speech,” White said.
White said Dews, of Dothan, was assigned, as part of a course, to develop artwork on the theme of birth. The whole class was told that the art would be displayed in the university’s Hall of Honor.
Dews’ work was reviewed by his professors and classmates as he produced it. He received an ”A” for his work and, after the work was hung, his professor expressed pleasure at the work of the class and the resulting display, according to the lawsuit. When the exhibit opened around Thanksgiving 2003, a warning was placed outside the exhibit indicating that the exhibit contained some nudity.
Before the Christmas holidays, Dews was told that the university’s lawyers had told his professor the pictures might be in violation of state obscenity laws. Prior to the spring semester, Dews was asked to remove his work. When he arrived, he found some of the pictures had been removed.
White said Dews’ work contained nude photographs of males and females, but they were not pictured together nor were they engaging in a sexual act or simulating one.
The lawsuit seeks an apology, elimination of the speech code, damages and attorney fees.