Speech Codes Unfairly Restrict Expression

By July 5, 2014

By Samantha Harris at The Columbus Dispatch 

The federal lawsuit filed Tuesday against Ohio University (“ OU group sues administrators over T-shirt,” Dispatch article, Wednesday) is about much more than just a slogan on a T-shirt.

Despite decades of legal precedent upholding the First Amendment rights of public university students, the majority of public universities, including OU, still maintain policies that unconstitutionally restrict student speech and expression.

At OU, for example, students can be punished under the student conduct code for “any act which demeans, degrades, (or) disgraces any person.” The code does not define any of these terms. It is easy to see, under a code this broad, why members of the group Students Defending Students feared punishment if they disobeyed the administrators’ order to stop wearing their T-shirts.

Numerous federal-court decisions leave absolutely no doubt that the students’ expression was protected by the First Amendment.

And this case illustrates how restrictive policies such as OU’s have a real and harmful impact. The group was not just trying to shock or amuse (although their speech would have been no less protected if they had been); they were trying to make students aware of the important but underutilized service they were offering.

The group offers free assistance to students charged with wrongdoing in the campus judicial system, so their T-shirts said “SDS: We get you off for free.” If their T-shirts had instead said, “ SDS: We provide assistance at no cost to students involved in campus judicial proceedings,” would their message have gotten as much notice? As one federal judge wrote in striking down another university’s speech code, such censorship can “deprive speakers of the tools they most need to connect emotionally with their audience.”

Free speech and open debate are at risk at our nation’s universities. Through the OU students’ lawsuit and the other lawsuits filed on Tuesday, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education hopes that federal courts will vindicate the free-speech rights of students at OU and elsewhere.

Schools: Ohio University