Ohio University Settles Free-Speech Lawsuit

February 2, 2015

By Collin Binkley at The Columbus Dispatch

Ohio University will pay $32,000 in legal fees and damages to a student who said the school violated his free-speech rights by telling him not to wear a sexually suggestive T-shirt.

Of the settlement amount, $6,000 will go to Isaac Smith, 23, a fifth-year student at the Athens campus, and $26,000 will go to the attorneys who represented Smith in his federal lawsuit.

The settlement, announced yesterday, also requires the university to change policies that Smith said were vague and encouraged students to self-censor their speech on campus. Smith said he wants the settlement to send a message to other colleges not to censor students.

“The most exciting thing, obviously, is the fact that the policy has been changed. That’s the reason the lawsuit was filed,” Smith, of Athens, said yesterday.

Ohio University settled the case “to avoid further expense and burden on our educators,” Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student affairs, wrote in a statement. He added that no OU administrators directed Smith to remove the shirt, but only to rethink its message.

The black T-shirt featured white lettering on the back that read “We get you off for free.” It’s the slogan for Students Defending Students, a group of OU students who help others navigate the campus judicial process. The slogan dates to the formation of the group in 1976, the group said.

Smith and two other students were wearing the shirt to recruit students on campus in 2013 when an OU administrator took offense to it, according to the suit. Smith alleged that Jenny Hall-Jones, dean of students, later told the group, “I don’t want to see you wearing that T-shirt again.”

Members of the group stopped wearing the shirt, fearing that they would be punished under an OU rule that forbids any act that demeans, degrades or disgraces any person, the suit said.

As part of the settlement, the university will revise that rule. Now, it will forbid harassment that interferes with someone else’s education. The school also will revise its handbook to say that “students will not be subject to disciplinary action for the lawful expression of ideas.”

In his statement for the university, Lombardi said that OU already had been revising its policies.

“Although the process of updating the new Code of Conduct began before –– and has progressed independent of –– Mr. Smith’s lawsuit, the university also has ensured that the new code reflects our commitment to freedom of speech and expression,” Lombardi wrote.

Smith filed the lawsuit with the help of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia civil-rights group. Ohio University was one of four schools that the nonprofit targeted in lawsuits last year, saying that their rules unfairly limited students.

“For too long, universities have engaged in censorship with little or no fear of repercussions. FIRE is bringing that era to an end,” the group’s president, Greg Lukianoff, said in a statement yesterday.

After a long hiatus in the closet, the shirts will soon return to campus, Smith said.

“I think a lot of people will be excited to be able to wear the T-shirts.”

Schools: Ohio University Cases: Ohio University – Stand Up For Speech Lawsuit