By Dave DeWitt at The Athens News
An attorney for Ohio University has filed an answer to a federal lawsuit filed by a current student alleging violation of free speech when university officials are alleged to have ordered a campus group to stop wearing a T-shirt.
The lawsuit, filed July 1 in U.S. District Court in Columbus by student Isaac Smith, charged that OU officials illegally and unconstitutionally ordered students at the Campus Involvement Fair in late August 2013 to stop wearing a T-shirt with the slogan, “We Get You Off for Free,” claiming it was offensive.
In a response filed last month, counsel from the Ohio Attorney General’s office denied that allegation and claimed that the OU Student Code of Conduct “speaks for itself.”
Smith is 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.
The lawsuit was filed in coordination with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a national free-speech advocate group.
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.
In the filing, OU’s attorney in the case, Assistant Ohio Attorney General Reid Caryer denied that the university violated any laws.
“(Ohio University) defendants deny that Jenny Hall-Jones did not wish to see Students Defending Students’ members wearing the T-shirts,” he wrote. “Defendants deny that Martha Compton directed Students Defending Students’ members not to wear the T-shirts.”
They further denied that Compton made comments to that effect that were attributed to her in the lawsuit.
In an affirmative defense, Caryer alleged that the plaintiff has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, that the defendants are entitled to sovereign immunity and/or 11th Amendment immunity, that the court lacks jurisdiction over some or all of the claims brought, and invoked the statue of limitations.
Furthermore, Caryer wrote, “Defendants admit that Ohio University has a Student Code of Conduct and that the Code speaks for itself.”
Last summer after the lawsuit was filed, OU issued a press release stating that the university never actually disciplined the students wearing the controversial T-shirts.
OU maintained that the discussions officials had with students 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 said. “University administrators were exercising their responsibilities as educators when they pointed out to the student organization how their actions might be viewed by others.”
On Nov. 6, the case was referred to the court’s settlement week in March 2015, though that doesn’t guarantee a settlement will actually be reached.