Hall-Rayford v. Owens
If you are a resident of Eastpointe, Michigan, who peacefully criticizes the mayor during the city council’s “hearing of the public,” there’s a good chance you may find yourself shouted down, cut off, and ruled out of order. That’s what happened to Mary Hall-Rayford, Karen Beltz, Karen Mouradjian, and Cindy Federle when they criticized Mayor Monique Owens during Eastpointe City Council meetings.
Mayor Owens’s actions are unconstitutional. When a city invites public comments during council meetings, the regulation of the public’s speech is restrained by the First Amendment. On November 9, 2022, FIRE filed a federal lawsuit against Mayor Monique Owens and the City of Eastpointe, seeking an injunction requiring the mayor and city to allow peaceful criticism at Eastpointe City Council meetings. Mayor Owens swore an oath to uphold the Constitution, not herself.
Villarreal v. City of Laredo, et al.: Journalism is not a Crime
Americans shouldn’t be jailed for peaceably asking public officials a question. But that is what officials in Laredo, Texas did to Priscilla Villarreal. FIRE is stepping in to defend Priscilla’s First Amendment rights and the rights of all Americans to ask public servants for information. And what’s more, to help ensure public officials who violate essential First Amendment rights are held accountable.
Priscilla is a citizen journalist who has gained a loyal following on social media because of her unfiltered reporting on local matters, including police and government conduct (and misconduct). Desperate to silence her, local officials dug up a statute—never used by local authorities in the law’s 23-year history—to arrest Priscilla for asking a police officer to confirm information she had already received from other sources.
Asking public servants for information is something thousands of journalists and other citizens do every day. And it is something the First Amendment obviously protects, as decisions from the Supreme Court make clear. But Laredo tried to criminalize Villarreal’s exercise of this essential First Amendment right.
Florida Board of Governors: Florida Law Restricting How College Professors, Students Can Discuss Race and Sex
More than a half-century ago, the Supreme Court recognized that the First Amendment “does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom,” where “truth” is discovered not by “authoritative selection,” but “out of a multitude of tongues.” In a remarkable retreat from Florida’s Campus Free Expression Act, which recognized that universities should not “shield” students from “uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive” opinions, Florida’s “Stop WOKE Act” imposes precisely the “pall of orthodoxy” that the Supreme Court warned about decades ago.
The Stop WOKE Act prohibits “instruction” on eight specific “concepts” related to “race, color, national origin, or sex.” Fla. Stat. § 1000.05(4)(a). For example, the Stop WOKE Act unlawfully restricts discussions of whether individuals are unconsciously biased based on their race or sex; whether certain virtues — including “merit, excellence, hard work, fairness, neutrality, objectivity, and racial colorblindness” — are racist; and whether particular races or sexes inherently have certain privileges or disadvantages. But in dictating to faculty and students what ideas may be considered in a college classroom, Florida’s political leaders have run headlong into the First Amendment.
On August 6, 2022, a University of South Florida professor of history, undergraduate student, and student organization — represented by FIRE — sued in federal court to challenge the Stop WOKE Act for violating their constitutional rights.
NeuroClastic: Autistic-Led Nonprofit Organization Stands Up for Free Speech Against Bully’s Threat of Defamation Suit
NeuroClastic, Inc. is a small, autistic-led, nonprofit organization that criticized the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center’s use of electric shocks on autistic people to suppress their behaviors. Based outside of Boston, the Rotenberg Center is the only facility in the United States using such electric-shock devices — a practice so notorious that it was condemned by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture.
In August 2021, NeuroClastic surveyed professionals in the field of applied behavior analysis regarding the Rotenberg Center’s use of the device. The findings, which were published on NeuroClastic’s website, note that 89% of survey respondents were “strongly opposed” to the electric-shock device.
On April 27, 2022, the Rotenberg Center sent NeuroClastic a cease-and-desist letter arguing that seven statements in the article were defamatory. It threatened to sue NeuroClastic for damages if it did not permanently and immediately delete the objectionable statements.
On August 30, 2022, FIRE demanded that the Rotenberg Center drop its baseless threat of litigation.
New York State Senate Blocks Critics on Twitter
If you’re a New Yorker who criticizes the New York State Senate on Twitter, you may find your tweet hidden or account blocked. That’s what happened to William J. Silver along with countless others who criticized New York’s plan to consider new gun control legislation.
After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a New York statute requiring a license to carry a firearm outside of the home, Governor Kathy Hochul called an extraordinary session of the state legislature to consider and adopt new gun control legislation. The New York State Senate tweeted that the session would “take up legislation in response to recent changes in federal law.”
Silver responded with a tweet of his own, quoting two words from the Second Amendment: “Shall not.” The New York State Senate quickly hid Silver’s tweet and blocked his account.
Clovis Community College: California College Censors Conservatives on Campus
Plaintiffs Alejandro Flores, Daniel Flores, and Juliette Colunga are students at Clovis Community College and founding members of the college’s chapter of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF-Clovis), a conservative student group. To spread their message and attract new members, Alejandro, Daniel, and Juliette — like many other students — post flyers in the hallways their peers walk through every day on their way to and from class. In November 2021, YAF-Clovis obtained the college’s permission to post flyers criticizing communist regimes on indoor bulletin boards. However, after administrators received a complaint that the flyers’ content made “several people . . . uncomfortable,” Clovis President Lori Bennett ordered her staff to pull the flyers down.
University of Washington: Professor Punished for Expressing Dissenting Opinion
Stuart Reges is an award-winning professor at the University of Washington in the Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. Administrators punished Professor Reges after he challenged the University’s position on Native American land ownership. The Allen School encourages professors to include on their syllabi a statement recognizing that the land on which the university sits was once owned by indigenous tribes. Professor Reges disagreed with the University’s “Indigenous Land Acknowledgement Statement” — instead, he challenged his students and fellow faculty to consider the utility and performative nature of land acknowledgments by including a modified statement on his syllabus.
Collin Community College District: History Professor Fired for Talking About History, Criticizing the College’s COVID-19 Response
Michael Phillips is an award-winning history professor at Collin College in McKinney, Texas. As an expert on the history of race relations, Phillips spoke out in the media advocating for removing Confederate monuments in Dallas. Two years later, he granted a media interview about a racially motivated shooting in El Paso by a former Collin College student. Collin College administrators disciplined Phillips because his comments to the press made the College “look bad” and violated a directive by the president forbidding faculty from speaking about the shooting.
Collin Community College District: Professor Unconstitutionally Fired for Unionizing, Criticizing the College’s COVID-19 Response
Suzanne Jones worked as professor of education for twenty years at Collin College before the College terminated her for unionizing faculty and criticizing the College’s plan to return to in-person teaching in the Fall of 2020. Jones helped author a resolution summarizing faculty concerns with returning to teach in-person during the COVID–19 pandemic in June 2020, and suggesting alternatives to in-person teaching. In response, the College’s president H. Neil Matkin ridiculed the resolution by claiming that it contained false information.
Tarleton State University: Texas University Covers Up Professor’s ‘Highly Inappropriate’ Behavior by Censoring Student Newspaper and Unlawfully Withholding Public Records
This public university in Texas, one of America’s 10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech—paid a professor to leave after he was accused of booking a hotel room for himself and a female student without her knowledge during travel, and inviting another student to his home for a movie, dinner, and drinks while his wife was away. Three years later, after the professor threatened to sue the student newspaper Texan News Service for reporting the story, Tarleton gave the student editors a choice: lose the articles or lose the paper’s funding. Tarleton then seized editorial control from the students and now falsely claims—contrary to the paper’s policy handbook and history—that Texan News Service was never independent.
Marshall University: Microbiology Professor Fired for Hyperbolic Classroom Speech About COVID-19 and Trump Supporters
Jennifer Mosher is a tenured microbiology professor at Marshall University in Huntington, WV. On September 15, 2020, as students were logging on to her virtual lecture, one student made an offhand remark about “thinning the gene pool,” referring to individuals who were not following public health requirements on masking. Mosher agreed, joking that she hoped “certain groups of people holding rallies” — presumably referencing President Trump’s campaign rallies — “all die before the election.” Later, after showing a video about pandemic readiness in her Biology of COVID-19 lecture, Mosher made similar comments. She taught both classes, and lectured the next day, without any incident.
University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center: Student Investigated and Punished for Social Media Posts
Kimberly Diei has twice been investigated by her program’s Professional Conduct Committee because of allegations that her personal social media activity was too “crude,” “vulgar,” and “sexual.”
RECENTLY RESOLVED CASES
Collin Community College District: History Professor Fired for Criticizing Mike Pence and Her College’s COVID-19 Response Online
Lora Burnett was a full-time history professor at Collin College. Like many Americans, Burnett shared her thoughts about important public issues, such as the 2020 presidential election and the COVID-19 pandemic on Twitter. During the October 2020 vice presidential debate, Burnett tweeted: “The moderator needs to talk over Mike Pence until he shuts his little demon mouth up.” Burnett also criticized Collin College’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. She publicly challenged Collin College President H. Neil Matkin’s assessment that the pandemic was “blown utterly out of proportion.” She also informed the public about the death of a former Collin College professor by tweeting, “Another @collincollege professor has died of COVID.” In private text exchanges with Texas State Rep. Jeff Leach, who was apparently upset about Burnett’s tweets concerning the debate, President Matkin promised to “deal with it” and later terminated Burnett.
Eastern Virginia Medical School: Medical Student Unconstitutionally Prohibited from Starting Student Club Promoting Healthcare Reform
Edward Si, a medical student at Eastern Virginia Medical School, applied to form a chapter of Students for a National Health Program, a national student organization dedicated to advocating for a single-payer health system, in December 2020. EVMS’s Student Government Association denied the application because it did “not want to create clubs based on opinions, political or otherwise, and the mission and goals of [SNaHP] do not describe what we believe to be necessary or sustainable for a club.”
LAWSUIT: Student journalist SUES his university, and WINS!
The president of Haskell Indian Nations University issued an unconstitutional directive to student journalist Jared Nally, editor-in-chief of the award winning student newspaper, The Indian Leader, that formally forbade Jared from engaging in protected journalistic activities. Without any notice or explanation, Haskell withheld more than $10,000 from the paper’s expected funds. He also directed Jared to start showing university administrators the “highest respect” — or else!
On March 2, 2021, on the heels of Student Press Freedom Day 2021, Nally and The Indian Leader — represented by FIRE — sued Haskell. In bringing this lawsuit, Nally and The Indian Leader seek to hold Haskell’s leadership accountable for flagrantly violating clearly established First Amendment rights — and make sure students and student journalists at Haskell and nationwide can ask questions, report the news, and talk with each other about what matters most to them.
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