My College Had a Problem with a Funny Shirt

June 24, 2015

Isaac Smith was a student at Ohio University (OU) where he helped to lead the group Students Defending Students (SDS), an organization that provides free assistance to students accused of campus misconduct. In order to interest other students, SDS made some eye-catching T-shirts emblazoned with the group’s original slogan from the 1970s: “We get you off for free.” But when members of the group wore the shirts at a fall recruitment fair, the dean of students told them that they should not wear the shirts because they were not professional and contained sexual innuendo—which was, of course, the point. Another administrator later justified the informal ban on the T-shirts because the shirts “objectified women” and “promoted prostitution”—odd charges for a gender-neutral phrase about a free service. Fearing punishment under the the Student Code of Conduct, which prohibited any “act that degrades, demeans or disgraces” another student as well as “taking any reckless, but not accidental, action from which mental or bodily harm could result to another person,” SDS discontinued use of the T-shirts.

But Isaac, sensing that the administration’s behavior was “kinda bull,” reached out to FIRE. FIRE worked with Isaac and attorney Robert Corn-Revere to file a First Amendment lawsuit against OU as part of the July 1, 2014, launch of our Stand Up For Speech Litigation Campaign. Hear about Isaac’s experience firsthand in the video below:

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In February 2015, OU settled the suit, agreeing to allow the T-shirts as well as revising the vague Student Code of Conduct policy on “mental or bodily harm” to comply with the First Amendment (not to mention paying out $32,000 for damages and legal fees). Isaac’s advice to other students? “I would absolutely encourage students at other schools to take action if they feel that there is a problem with their speech code. If they feel that it’s unconstitutional … absolutely stand up and take action.”

Learn how you can take action at the 2015 FIRE Student Network Conference, July 24–26 in Philadelphia. The conference is free to attend and will provide you with all the tools necessary to fight for student rights on your campus. Meals and housing are provided, as well as a travel stipend of up to $300 to help you get to and from the conference. What are you waiting for? Space is limited, so apply today!