By Conor Morris at The Athens News
Ohio University has requested and been granted additional time to respond to a federal lawsuit brought by a current student regarding free-speech issues on campus.
The lawsuit, filed July 1 in U.S. District Court in Columbus, charges that OU officials illegally and unconstitutionally ordered students at the Campus Involvement Fair last August to stop wearing a T-shirt with the slogan, “We Get You Off for Free,” claiming it was offensive.
The suit’s plaintiff is Isaac Smith, a fifth-year senior at OU who is associate director for the campus group Students Defending Students (SDS). The named defendants are OU President Roderick McDavis, Dean of Students Jenny Hall-Jones and Martha Compton, director of the university’s Office of Community Standards and Student Responsibility.
Last Wednesday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Abel granted OU’s motion for an extension of time for its response to the lawsuit, from Sept. 8 to Oct. 24. The motion was unopposed by the plaintiffs.
OU’s motion requested the plea date be extended for three reasons:
• The parties are attempting to resolve the matter informally. The extra time will allow OU to “better the degree of resources the defendants can devote to informal resolution.”
• OU wants to extend the responsive pleading deadline in hopes to allow continued negotiation between both parties without additional legal costs.
• The October deadline will sync up with the OU Board of Trustees’ meeting on Oct. 17, allowing the administration to meet and confer with the board about resolution of the lawsuit.
Smith, when reached for comment Friday, said he couldn’t comment on specifics of the legal proceedings. He did say the process has not hindered his continuing work on campus.
“Things are continuing on as normal. I’m still taking cases (with SDS). That’s all chugging along just like it has been before,” he said.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a national free-speech advocate group, helped coordinate the lawsuit with Smith initially.
Catherine Sevcenko, litigation coordinator at FIRE, said previously that OU has a “red” speech code rating, meaning that it has at least one policy that substantially restricts freedom of speech on campus.
The lawsuit demands a declaratory judgment stating that OU’s speech codes are unconstitutional and violate the plaintiff’s free-speech rights; a permanent injunction restraining enforcement of the defendants’ speech code; a declaratory judgment that OU’s censorship of the plaintiff’s expression violates his rights under the First and 14thAmendments; monetary damages to compensate for OU’s censorship and threat of punishment; punitive damages; and attorneys’ fees.
OU issued a response to the lawsuit in early July, noting that the university never actually disciplined the students wearing the controversial T-shirts. OU maintains that the discussions officials had with students, in which the lawsuit specifically names Compton and Hall-Jones, were in the best interest of the students involved, and represented “civility in disagreement.”
“Such a discussion occurred when administrators suggested to the student organization that the T-shirts might inhibit their efforts to serve other students,” the release from OU reads. “University administrators were exercising their responsibilities as educators when they pointed out to the student organization how their actions might be viewed by others.”
The suit also demands a jury trial, although the current extension of the deadline to respond to Smith’s complaint could point to a possible out-of-court settlement.