Chris Morbitzer studied urban planning at the University of Cincinnati (UC), where he served as the president and one of the founding members of UC’s chapter of Young Americans for Liberty. Over the past few years, his group ran into the restrictive speech zone rules and had trouble putting on events and activities on campus. In 2012, with the help of FIRE and the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, Chris led his student group to a convincing win for free speech in federal court.
The CFN asked Chris about his experience as a plaintiff in this precedent-setting case:
CFN: Can you describe your case at UC, including how your group originally decided to challenge the free speech zone and all that has happened since?
CM: We were circulating a petition for a right-to-work ballot initiative in Ohio, and were told that we would only be permitted to do so in the school’s free speech zone, which was a tiny portion of the overall campus. We were so restricted that we were unable to talk to more than six people in half an hour on a crowded campus and decided to challenge the speech rules. When we contacted FIRE and the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, we found out that FIRE had been criticizing UC’s speech regulations for many years and that UC had been defending their rules the whole time. We decided that a federal lawsuit was appropriate, which got us a lot of media attention. I was actually surprised at how vigorously UC continued to defend its policies even in the face of such scrutiny from the media and from popular student opinion.
In June, the court issued a preliminary injunction that was very clearly in our favor and seemingly chastised the university for even bringing the issue as far as it went. In August, the decision was made permanent and the university revised its rules to be extremely favorable for free speech activities. When before, we were required to give two weeks’ notice to the university to hold speech activities in a free speech zone, now most speech activities can occur in any outdoor area of campus and with no prior notice to the university.
CFN: What was the most difficult part of challenging your school’s free speech zone?
CM: The most difficult part of challenging the free speech zone was not having the support of the university administration on a campus where the administration is usually very open to student initiative. That was nothing, though, compared to the amount of support that we received from all of the students and the press. Nearly all students were in full support of our lawsuit, and usually it was my friends who would show me the latest news article about the lawsuit because they were so excited that something was being done about the university’s policy. Media around the nation picked up the story which helped our case a lot, and we got lots of very positive coverage in the local and campus news both during and after the lawsuit.
CFN: What advice do you have for other students who want to promote student rights on their campuses?
CM: Don’t be afraid to be assertive about your rights and to be persistent in demanding change. Always choose the friendliest option first, but if that doesn’t work, don’t hesitate to force the issue in court if need be. Also, don’t neglect the power of public opinion. Make sure that you have the support of your friends, other students, and the media. That will seem to make all the difference in an otherwise uphill battle.
Thanks to the persistence of Chris and his group members, this decision will help protect student speech not just at the University of Cincinnati but for all schools in the Southern District of Ohio. For more information on speech code litigation, read FIRE’s “Challenging Your College’s Speech Code” guide.