BUFFALO, N.Y., May 10, 2005—The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has won yet another remarkable victory over campus censorship and repression. Last week, the State University of New York at Brockport (SUNY Brockport) settled a lawsuit brought by FIRE Legal Network attorneys and agreed to repeal its unconstitutional speech code. The settlement marks the fourth victory for FIRE’s Speech Codes Litigation Project and requires SUNY Brockport to modify several college policies to make them consistent with the First Amendment. SUNY Brockport must also place notices of the changes on the Internet, in college offices, in college publications, and in the student newspaper. The lawsuit was filed in June 2004 on behalf of students Patricia Simpson and Robert Wojick by FIRE Legal Network attorneys Robert A. Goodman and Elizabeth A. Wells, both of the law firm of Arnold & Porter in New York City, and by attorney David R. Koepsell of Amherst, New York.
“FIRE has struck another blow in the battle for free speech on campus,” remarked David French, FIRE’s president. “We will continue to confront speech codes until universities get the message: censorship is publicly and legally indefensible.”
SUNY Brockport’s speech code had banned expression clearly protected by the U.S. Constitution. For instance, the college’s harassment policy, which applied to students and faculty, listed the following among examples of harassment: “cartoons that depict religious figures in compromising situations”; “calling someone an ‘old bag’”; “jokes making fun of any protected group”; and even merely “discussing sexual activities.” In addition, the Brockport College Republicans, an organization to which plaintiffs Patricia Simpson and Robert Wojick belonged, were unconstitutionally targeted for the content of the group’s expression in 2003 and 2004.
While SUNY Brockport denies any wrongdoing in the settlement, the college has agreed to make significant changes to a number of policies to address constitutional concerns about free expression. For instance, SUNY Brockport has removed the above examples of sexual harassment from its policies. It also plans to remove from rulebooks a policy stating that “free speech, academic freedom and individual rights [should be] expressed only with responsible and careful regard for the feelings and sensitivities of others,” and will add a disclaimer indicating that this statement cannot be used as grounds for disciplinary action against students.
“While public colleges are free to express the wish that their students will take into account the feelings of others when they speak, they are not free to punish those who don’t,” commented FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Greg Lukianoff. “Holding one person’s expression hostage to the ‘feelings’ of another can only lead to arbitrary censorship and, ultimately, silence.”
Robert Goodman, attorney for the students, added, “Our goal in launching this lawsuit was not just to vindicate the free speech rights of SUNY Brockport’s 8,600 students but also to send a message to public universities in New York and across the country that maintaining unconstitutional speech codes could land them in court.”
The suit against SUNY Brockport was the fourth lawsuit in FIRE’s ongoing Speech Codes Litigation Project, which aims to put an end to the scandal of unconstitutional and immoral speech codes on America’s public college and university campuses. Every single speech code lawsuit FIRE has coordinated has resulted in a victory for free speech and individual rights on campus. Speech codes at Texas Tech University and Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania were defeated in court, while Citrus College in California repealed all of its speech code policies almost immediately after a lawsuit was filed.
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 thefire.org.