PHILADELPHIA, May 7, 2015—Dixie State University in Utah and California State Polytechnic University, Pomona have both agreed this week to suspend numerous policies that substantially restrict students’ free speech rights on campus. The policy suspensions result from lawsuits filed this year as part of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s (FIRE’s) Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project, an unprecedented and undefeated national effort to eliminate unconstitutional speech codes from the nation’s public colleges and universities.
“FIRE has been warning colleges for years that the Constitution is clear—there is no place for speech codes on a public college campus,” said FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff. “When colleges and universities fail to meet their legal obligation to protect their students’ and faculty’s free speech rights, FIRE and Stand Up For Speech will be there to hold them accountable. We are encouraged by the developments at Dixie State and Cal Poly Pomona and are confident that the speech codes we’ve challenged will soon be permanently eliminated at both schools.”
On March 4, 2015, students William Jergins, Joey Gillespie, and Forrest Gee filed a federal lawsuit against Dixie State for restricting their free speech rights when the school refused to approve flyers promoting their Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) student group. Administrators claimed the flyers depicting President George W. Bush, President Barack Obama, and Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara violated university policy because they “disparage[d]” and “mock[ed]” individuals. An administrator also decreed that the group had to hold its “free speech wall” event in an inconveniently located “free speech zone” that neither the student-plaintiffs nor other administrators knew existed.
On March 31, student and animal rights activist Nicolas Tomas filed a federal lawsuit against Cal Poly Pomona after a university police officer stopped him from handing out animal rights flyers on a campus sidewalk. The officer directed Tomas to the Office of Student Life to obtain a “permit,” namely a badge that he would have to wear while distributing any written material. Furthermore, he would be confined to Cal Poly Pomona’s tiny “free speech zone”—a patch of turf that makes up less than 0.01 percent of campus.
“The Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project has demonstrated that, when challenged, colleges won’t even try to defend their unconstitutional speech codes in court—yet 54 percent of public colleges maintain them,” said FIRE Executive Director Robert Shibley. “Speech codes are losers, both in the court of law and in the court of public opinion, and schools can either make efforts to reform them or expose themselves to costly, unwinnable litigation.”
The suspension of the speech codes at the center of both lawsuits comes after productive discussions between Stand Up For Speech lawyers—First Amendment attorney Robert Corn-Revere of the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine and his colleagues Ronald London and Lisa Zycherman—and lawyers for each school. Settlement talks are planned to continue.
Thus far, FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project has filed nine lawsuits against public colleges and universities across the country, five of which have already been settled in favor of First Amendment rights. FIRE’s most recent victory came at Western Michigan University on April 30, 2015, a little over six months after the lawsuit was filed. The university agreed to reform its event policies to prevent it from effectively taxing speakers for their controversial messages, as it did in the spring of 2014 when it demanded that the plaintiffs pay a hefty security fee to host rapper and social activist Boots Riley on campus. The remaining four cases, including the Cal Poly Pomona and Dixie State cases, are still in active litigation.
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, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and freedom 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.
Nico Perrino, Associate Director of Communications, FIRE: 215-717-3473; email@example.com