GRAMBLING, La., September 16, 2010—As the 2010 election season enters full swing, Grambling State University (GSU) is prohibiting its students and faculty members from engaging in a wide swath of constitutionally protected political expression. The Louisiana public university has forbidden students and faculty from transmitting any “campaign solicitations” via the university’s e-mail system, a ban that includes any message that “implies your support” for a political candidate. Concerned students turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
“As the national dialogue increasingly focuses on the upcoming elections, administrators at Grambling State have made the unconstitutional decision to shut down the conversation on campus,” said FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley. “The First Amendment protects such core political expression, and as a public university, GSU cannot lawfully prevent students and faculty from speaking their minds about the electoral choices facing our country.”
On July 13, 2010, GSU’s Office of Media Relations e-mailed all GSU students that “Individuals who receive political campaign solicitations via university email are advised to delete these emails upon receipt.” The e-mail also instructed, “DO NOT FORWARD campaign solicitations using university email as this implies your support for the candidate and may be viewed as utilizing university resources for solicitation purposes, a violation of state policy.”
FIRE wrote to GSU President Frank G. Pogue on September 1, pointing out that GSU’s policy against forwarding any e-mail containing “campaign solicitations” prohibits political speech at the heart of the First Amendment’s protection of free expression. FIRE’s letter pointed out that under well-established First Amendment precedents, a public university may not broadly deny its students and faculty members the right to engage in such basic political speech as political campaign solicitations.
FIRE’s letter also noted that the university’s invocation of “state policy” misinterprets applicable law in Louisiana. Article X, Section 9, of the Louisiana Constitution provides far more specific, narrow limitations on political activity than does the broad ban announced by GSU’s Office of Media Relations.
Under the Louisiana Constitution, even a member of the most restricted class of state employees may “exercise his right as a citizen to express his opinion privately.” FIRE’s letter points out that in almost every such case involving a university student, faculty member, or employee, there is little chance that a reasonable person would assume that the sender is speaking on behalf of the university. Where there is ambiguity on this point, the solution is to require the private individual to state that he or she is speaking privately and not for the institution—not to ban such expression entirely.
“The only thing worse than GSU’s blanket ban on political e-mails is the school’s erroneous claim that it is required to do so under state law,” said Will Creeley, FIRE’s Director of Legal and Public Advocacy. “GSU cannot censor all political e-mails out of a misguided fear that clearly private e-mails somehow imply institutional support. GSU must reverse the ban and clarify to students and faculty that they are free to engage in political speech via e-mail as long as they do not claim to be speaking for the school.”
FIRE asked for a response from President Pogue by September 15, but the university has so far failed to respond. “Every day that Grambling maintains this policy, it is violating the First Amendment. With the elections just weeks away, Grambling must act now to restore its students’ and faculty members’ rights,” said Creeley.
FIRE addressed election-season problems such as GSU’s in 2008 in a Policy Statement on Political Activity on Campus.
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 at Grambling State University and on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.