KU Faces Free Speech Challenge In Ongoing Lawsuit

July 4, 2015

By Cella Liopis-Jepsen at The Topeka Capital-Journal

A lawsuit against The University of Kansas brought by a student expelled in connection with the alleged harassment of his ex-girlfriend is drawing attention from civil liberties groups and Kansas State University, who have submitted briefs to the court questioning KU’s arguments.

Navid Yeasin turned to the courts last year after KU kicked him out mid-semester in the fall of 2013 and banned him from KU property.

The university had warned him against harassing a fellow student, including making references to her on social media.

KU’s warnings came after a series of incidents that included Yeasin allegedly detaining his ex-girlfriend in a car — off campus — for hours against her will, during which time he took her cellphone from her and yelled at her.

That episode led to Yeasin’s arrest on criminal restraint and battery charges, and a court ordering him not to have contact with the woman. KU says in its court filings that Yeasin also had threatened the woman with violence and that he would commit suicide if she left him.

The university initiated its own investigation into Yeasin when the woman filed a sexual harassment complaint there reporting his conduct. The school directed Yeasin not to have contact with her, directly or indirectly, and when he tweeted demeaning messages that apparently targeted her, the school warned him again. The school says he didn’t desist and was therefore expelled.

Yeasin sued, arguing KU had violated his right to free speech, and that neither the car incident nor his tweeting took place on KU property.

He won in Douglas County District Court last December, but KU appealed and the case is now pending at the Kansas Court of Appeals, with oral arguments scheduled for this month.

But KU’s appeal has prompted K-State, the ACLU of Kansas, the D.C.-based Student Press Law Center (which specializes in free speech and education law), and the Philadelphia-based civil liberties group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education to submit arguments countering KU’s.

“KU absolutely overstepped the bounds of its authority to regulate student speech,” says Doug Bonney, executive director of the ACLU of Kansas.

In its amicus brief, the ACLU says Yeasin posted tweets about his ex-girlfriend that were “sophomoric and unflattering,” or even “tasteless, offensive, and hateful.”

But, it adds, “they still fell well within the broad protections of the First Amendment’s Speech Clause.”

The ACLU rejects KU’s argument that Yeasin’s tweets were threats, saying the posts didn’t suggest violence or mention his ex-girlfriend by name. The tweets also weren’t directed at her using her Twitter username.

KU responded to the ACLU in a separate filing last month, arguing the tweets constituted threats because they were part of a pattern of abuse.

The school also argues that it wasn’t punishing Yeasin’s speech, but rather his behavior — namely, ongoing harassment and retaliation against a female student — and that courts have already established that the First Amendment has limits.

“No one has an absolute right to free speech,” the filing says. “Yeasin’s conduct involved sexual harassment, including physical violence, and retaliation against Ms. W., including threats to harm her physically and to disparage her and damage her reputation.”

This behavior, KU asserts, violated university policies and the federal law against discrimination in education, Title IX.

The reference to Title IX concerned K-State, the Student Press Law Center and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

K-State argues KU is misinterpreting the law, since Yeasin appears to have sent the tweets while off-campus.

“Title IX does not mandate that KU must sanction students for off-campus conduct,” K-State’s filing says.

The filing says K-State doesn’t condone sexual violence, but it argues federal law doesn’t assign responsibility to schools for incidents off campus.

KU, however, points to Title IX guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Education over the years, including that schools should work to protect victims of off-campus assaults if they face continued harassment or retaliation at school.

The Student Press Law Center and Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, meanwhile, warned in a joint filing against what they described as an increasingly common phenomenon of schools implementing Title IX in such a way that violates free speech.

The brief describes a “widespread abuse of harassment policies under the banner of Title IX.”

“While this case ostensibly is about one student’s remarks about his former girlfriend on social media,” the filing cautions, “the principles at issue have the potential to apply far more broadly and to speakers on matters of greater public concern.”

 

Schools: Kansas State University University of Kansas