Ohio University (OU) student Isaac Smith is a member of Students Defending Students (SDS), a student organization that provides free assistance to students accused of campus misconduct. Smith and his fellow SDS members were ordered by OU administrators not to wear an SDS t-shirt featuring the phrase “We get you off for free”—a long-running SDS joke, dating back to the 1970s—claiming that the slogan “objectified women” and “promoted prostitution.” Fearing disciplinary action, Smith and his fellow SDS members complied with the order.
Smith’s concern about enforcement was well-founded, given OU’s vague and overly broad speech codes. Ohio University’s Student Code of Conduct forbids any “act that degrades, demeans, or disgraces” another student, rendering a vast amount of speech protected by the First Amendment off-limits and subject to punishment. The Code also prohibits “taking any reckless, but not accidental, action from which mental or bodily harm could result to another person”—but fails to define the terms “reckless” and “mental harm.” As part of a February 2, 2015 settlement, OU changed these policies to comply with the First Amendment. It also paid $32,000 for Smith’s damages and attorneys’ fees.