Federal Lawsuit Filed against Shippensburg University as School Blatantly Violates Settlement Repealing Unconstitutional Speech Codes

May 7, 2008

SHIPPENSBURG, Pa., May 7, 2008A complaint filed in federal court today by attorneys from the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) alleges that Shippensburg University has dishonestly reinstituted unconstitutional policies in violation of the terms of a 2004 legal settlement reached with members of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s (FIRE’s) Legal Network.

The existing settlement was reached in February 2004 after the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania issued a preliminary injunction against the university, ordering Shippensburg’s then-president, Anthony F. Ceddia, not to enforce unconstitutional provisions of Shippensburg’s code. The settlement ended a lawsuit brought by FIRE Legal Network attorneys David A. French and William Adair Bonner, and was the first of a string of victories for FIRE’s Speech Codes Litigation Project.

“Shippensburg’s inexplicable violation of the 2004 settlement demonstrates a blatant disregard for the First Amendment and its own promises,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “By brazenly reneging on the terms of an agreement that previously saved it from an embarrassing defeat in court, Shippensburg has further tainted its tarnished reputation.”

Prior to the preliminary injunction and subsequent settlement, Shippensburg’s speech code banned expression clearly protected by the United States Constitution. For example, the college’s harassment policy defined harassment as “unwanted conduct which annoys, threatens, or alarms a person or group,” and outlawed “emotional abuse.” The code also violated the right of private conscience in Orwellian fashion by requiring that “every member of the community” mirror the official views of the university administration “in their attitudes and behaviors.” In his preliminary injunction against Shippensburg in September 2003, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III held that many of these provisions “could certainly be used to truncate debate and free expression by students.”

The complaint filed today indicates that Shippensburg has reinserted unconstitutional provisions into current university policy, in many cases utilizing language copied seemingly verbatim from the policies challenged by the previous suit. For example, the 2007-2008 edition of the Swataney, Shippensburg’s student handbook, mandates that “every member of this community” ensure that the official views of the university administration “will be mirrored in their attitudes and behaviors,” and once again prohibits “emotional abuse.” The complaint alleges several other substantive constitutional infirmities, including a challenge to the school’s harassment code.

“Shippensburg’s ‘courthouse conversion’ several years ago, when it promised to respect the First Amendment and change its ways, has now proven insincere,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Steven H. Aden, who will be representing the plaintiffs in their lawsuit against Shippensburg. “We hope that a return trip to the courthouse for this constitutional repeat offender will cause Shippensburg to finally mend its ways and embrace a true diversity of viewsreligious, political, and otherwiseso that the university can become the ‘marketplace of ideas’ it is supposed to be.”

FIRE’s Speech Codes Litigation Projectan initiative to dismantle unconstitutional speech codes on public university campuseshas won crucial victories at Texas Tech University, the State University of New York at Brockport, California’s Citrus College, and San Francisco State University and the California State University System.

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 www.thefire.org.

Greg Lukianoff, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; greg_lukianoff@thefire.org
Steven H. Aden, Senior Legal Counsel, Alliance Defense Fund Center for Academic Freedom: 202-624-3010; saden@telladf.org
William N. Ruud, President, Shippensburg University: 717-477-1301; wnruud@ship.edu

Schools:  Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania

Cases:  Shippensburg University: Speech Code Litigation