Last Monday, FIRE and the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) jointly applied for permission to file an amici curiae (friends-of-the-court) brief with the Kansas Court of Appeals in Yeasin v. University of Kansas. The brief argues that public universities cannot sacrifice the First Amendment rights of students in seeking to comply with Title IX anti-discrimination obligations, that universities generally cannot exert authority over students’ off-campus speech, and that name-calling on social media is not tantamount to a “true threat.”
Navid Yeasin, a petroleum engineering major at the University of Kansas (KU), tweeted insulting comments about his ex-girlfriend, calling her a “psycho bitch” and “#psycho.” The tweets never mentioned his ex’s name and were not sent to her; she was, in fact, blocked from his Twitter feed. Nonetheless, the university expelled Yeasin, asserting that his tweets violated the no-contact order it had imposed on him in a separate disciplinary proceeding. Although the no-contact order originally prohibited Yeasin from making contact with his ex, the university later broadened its scope in an email to Yeasin, prohibiting him from making any reference to her on social media, even if it did not contain her name and was not directed at her.
A lower state court ruled that KU could not punish Yeasin for his off-campus tweets. KU is now appealing the ruling in the Kansas Court of Appeals.
KU’s attorneys argue that the university’s obligations under Title IX justify and necessitate these restrictions on Yeasin’s speech. But as FIRE and the SPLC point out, college administrators are increasingly misconstruing Title IX anti-harassment obligations as requiring them to impinge upon students’ and faculty members’ right to free speech. KU’s broad enforcement of its no-contact order is “yet another example of a university erroneously believing it must chip away at protected free speech in order to comply with Title IX.”
This misapplication of anti-discrimination law, especially if affirmed by the Kansas Court of Appeals, could have serious consequences for colleges in Kansas and nationwide. As our brief argues:
The widespread abuse of harassment policies under the banner of Title IX enforcement signals to students and faculty that colleges and universities are no longer safe for free speech. The misapplication of Title IX and other anti-harassment statutes affects the speakers directly and also chills other would-be speakers by signaling that engaging in controversial, dissenting, unpopular, or merely inconvenient expression may lead to investigation and discipline. In an atmosphere where students and faculty do not feel free to express and debate different views, ideas, and opinions, the creation and development of knowledge will grind to a halt, to the detriment of not only the university community but also society as a whole.
KU’s enforcement of the no-contact order to silence Yeasin’s off-campus speech is just one example of the way colleges often jettison First Amendment freedoms in the name of Title IX compliance. For that reason and several others, the case is one to follow, and we hope that our amici brief will help to influence the Kansas Court of Appeals’ decision in Yeasin.
Lindsie Trego is a FIRE legal intern.