JACKSON, Miss., July 28, 2010—Isaac Rosenbloom is again able to pursue advanced training as a paramedic at Hinds Community College (HCC) now that the school has reversed its punishment against him for swearing a single time outside of class. Rosenbloom, who supports his wife and two young children as an emergency medical technician, was barred from one of his classes and denied financial aid after a professor initiated a verbal confrontation with him over his language. After HCC found Rosenbloom guilty of “flagrant disrespect,” he turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
“HCC almost ruined a man’s life because he cursed after class in the vicinity of a college professor,” said Will Creeley, FIRE’s Director of Legal and Public Advocacy. “But Hinds Community College isn’t some Victorian finishing school—it’s a public institution bound by the First Amendment.”
Rosenbloom’s ordeal began on March 29, 2010, when professor Barbara Pyle and a few students stayed after class to discuss the students’ grades. At one point, in the doorway of the room, Rosenbloom said to a fellow student that his grade was “going to f— up my entire GPA.”
According to Rosenbloom’s account in a recording of his April 6 hearing, Pyle began to yell and told him that his language was unacceptable and that she was giving him “detention.” Rosenbloom replied, accurately, that detention was not a punishment at HCC. Pyle then told him that she was sending him to the dean. She submitted a disciplinary complaint against Rosenbloom, stating that “this language was not to be tolerated [and] he could not say that under any circumstances [including in] the presence of the other students.”
HCC found Rosenbloom guilty of “flagrant disrespect” and issued him twelve demerits–just three short of suspension. He also was involuntarily withdrawn from Pyle’s course, and a copy of the decision was placed in Rosenbloom’s student file. As a result, Rosenbloom lost his financial aid, effectively ending his academic and professional career. Rosenbloom unsuccessfully appealed the decision twice.
FIRE wrote HCC President Clyde Muse on April 27, pointing out not only that HCC’s policy is unconstitutional but also that it was applied unconstitutionally to punish Rosenbloom for his protected speech outside of class. In contravention of the First Amendment, HCC bans “public profanity, cursing and vulgarity,” assessing a fine of $25 for the first offense, $50 plus ten to fifteen demerits for the second offense, and suspension for the third offense.
After Muse failed to respond to FIRE, FIRE obtained the assistance of attorneys Robert B. McDuff and Sibyl Byrd, who took up Rosenbloom’s case and secured a settlement in his favor. HCC has removed the finding and demerits from Rosenbloom’s record and has restored his financial aid. McDuff is a civil rights and criminal defense attorney practicing in Jackson.
“Under the threat of litigation, HCC has seen the light in this case, but its unconstitutional prohibition of ‘vulgarity’ is still on the books,” said Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. “Official punishment of speech is the wrong way to achieve ‘civility’ on campus. It is only a matter of time before another student sues HCC over this policy and costs the taxpayers of Mississippi a lot more than 25 dollars. FIRE will be watching HCC closely and asking the school why a policy it cannot defend in court remains in force.”
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 viewed at www.thefire.org.
Adam Kissel, Director, Individual Rights Defense Program, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org