OU Settles In Student-Led Freedom Of Speech Lawsuit

February 2, 2015

By Conor Morris at The Athens News

Ohio University today signed a settlement pact in which it agrees to revise several policies in the Student Code of Conduct as the end result of a First Amendment lawsuit from an OU student challenging that policy.

Senior Isaac Smith worked in coordination with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a national nonprofit that advocates free speech in colleges, to sue OU last July as a part of a national freedom of speech litigation campaign.

Smith and FIRE charged in that lawsuit that university officials illegally and unconstitutionally told students at the Campus Involvement Fair in August 2013 to stop wearing a T-shirt with the slogan, “We Get You Off for Free,” claiming it was offensive. The shirt used the phrase to advertise Students Defending Students, a campus organization that provides legal support for students. Smith belongs to the group.

Smith and his attorneys were awarded $32,000 by OU as a result of the settlement, $6,000 of which goes to Smith directly.

Because of the settlement, OU also implemented changes recommended by Smith and his attorneys for the existing Student Code of Conduct. The university also has updated its future revised Code of Conduct, which goes into effect Aug. 19, 2015.

The university has worked on updating its Code of Conduct in recent years to clarify its impact on students and revise certain outdated language and policies.

“I’m pretty excited. It’s a great feeling,” Smith said on Monday. “Universities don’t really have the incentive to fight something like this because of the fact that cases that are picked for the Stand Up For Speech campaign are generally such airtight cases.”

The university’s response to the settlement with Smith – as provided Monday by OU spokesperson Katie Quaranta – states that Smith’s lawsuit “stresses the importance of upholding students’ right to free speech.”

However, the response continued: “Contrary to Mr. Smith’s allegations, the university upheld those values in this case. Mr. Smith was neither disciplined nor threatened with discipline for wearing the T-shirt mentioned in the lawsuit, and no one directed him to remove it. Rather, university educators suggested that Mr. Smith consider how the T-shirt and its message might inhibit his organization’s efforts to serve other students. Such an exchange of alternative points of view is at the heart of education and free speech.”

Ryan Lombardi, OU’s vice president for student affairs, stated in the university response that the process of updating the Code of Conduct was started “independently” of Smith’s lawsuit, but that the end result of that update process “reflects our commitment to freedom of speech and expression.”

FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech campaign, connected to Smith’s lawsuit, has won four victories in a row since last year against U.S. universities’ speech codes that the organization perceives as being unconstitutional, FIRE stated in a news release Monday.

Smith speculated that one factor likely figured into the university’s decision to settle (the lawsuit never actually went to court) – a desire to avoid bad PR.

“Obviously, the big fear for any of the universities that are being sued is the fact that there’s the possibility that this could just be a PR nightmare,” Smith said.

Smith, who is a fifth-year senior at OU and associate director of Students Defending Students, said that SDS has attempted to get the Student Code of Conduct revised since its inception as an organization in the ’70s.

The immediate changes implemented in OU’s current Student Code of Conduct will be replaced by the aforementioned revised Code in August. Smith pointed out that a section of the current Code restricting “mental or bodily harm to others” has had almost all provisions relating to “mental harm” removed as a result of the settlement.

Smith said one of the biggest victories for him in the lawsuit proceedings was the resultant updates to the current code, which he considered unconstitutional before the changes.

Before the settlement, Smith said, the Code of Conduct “had the whole ‘mental or bodily harm’ section, and (restricted) any conduct which ‘demeans, degrades or disgraces any person,’ which was the most objectionable thing.” He added that those provisions, as he and his attorneys argued in the lawsuit, were far too broad in the context of permissible free speech on campus.

Smith said the future revised Code of Conduct also has language recommended by he and FIRE during the suit against the university.

“I got a copy of that (updated code) to look at as a model code of conduct, and that revised code of conduct wasn’t fully above bar,” Smith said of the revised code he saw initially.

The changes to the revised code recommended by Smith and FIRE include updated definitions of harassment and discrimination, as well as a statement about the mission of the Code of Conduct, both of which can be found in thesettlement under “Exhibit A.”

“Because of Isaac Smith’s willingness to stand up for his constitutional rights, OU has revised its vague speech codes,” said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff in the press release. “For too long, universities have engaged in censorship with little or no fear of repercussions. FIRE is bringing that era to an end.”

Three other lawsuits are currently being litigated as a part of FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech campaign, according to the press release. The University of Hawaii System and Citrus College each settled a lawsuit FIRE filed against their speech codes in December of last year. The release states that more than $242,000 in fees and damages have been awarded by universities so far as a result of the campaign.

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that focuses on issues of speech and academic freedom at U.S. universities and colleges.

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