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FIRE Declares War on Speech Codes

SHIPPENSBURG, PA—FIRE Legal Network attorneys David A. French and William Adair Bonner have filed a lawsuit against speech codes at Shippensburg University, a public institution in central Pennsylvania. “The action at Shippensburg is the first part of a campaign to end the nightmare of campus censorship,” said FIRE President Alan Charles Kors. “Such codes are a moral, educational, and legal scandal in American higher education. A nation that does not educate in liberty will not long preserve it and will not even know when it is lost.”

The lawsuit was filed on April 22, 2003 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. It asserts that the plaintiffs—undergraduate students at the university—risk punishment up to expulsion for engaging in constitutionally protected expression. The suit is a “facial challenge” because it asserts that the policies threaten so much protected speech that their very existence is a violation of the First Amendment. “The University’s speech codes…have a chilling effect on Plaintiffs’ rights to freely and openly engage in appropriate discussions of their theories, ideas and political and/or religious beliefs,” the complaint states. “The University and [President] Anthony F. Ceddia have violated rights guaranteed to the Plaintiffs—and to all University students—by the First and the Fourteenth Amendments.”

Shippensburg University’s Code of Conduct states that the university defends free speech unless it is “inflammatory, demeaning, or harmful towards others.” The university requires that “the expression of one’s beliefs” should not “provoke” or “demean”—effectively outlawing most forms of passionate expression, moral outrage, robust discussion, dissent, and protest. Kors noted, “The expression most in need of protection, of course, is precisely ‘provocative’ dissent from widely held views, even if those provoked see that as ‘demeaning.’”

Shippensburg also outlaws “subordination…on the basis of race, color, creed or national origin, communicated through words, attitudes, actions and/or gestures.” Shippensburg also prohibits conduct that “annoys, threatens, or alarms a person or group,” giving as examples of sexual harassment “innuendo,” “comments, insults,” “propositions,” “humor/jokes about sex or gender-specific traits,” and even “suggestive or insulting sounds, leering, whistling, [and] obscene gestures.” “Most stand-up comics—whether feminists or male chauvinists—wouldn’t last a day at Shippensburg,” Kors noted.

In a flagrant violation of freedom of conscience, the university also mandates official values by requiring students to display a “commitment to racial tolerance, cultural diversity, and social justice…in their attitudes and behaviors” under threat of official punishment. Shippensburg also quarantines free expression to only two designated areas, leaving the rest of the campus a censorship zone.

Working with public interest law firms and pro bono attorneys in FIRE’s Legal Network, FIRE will help organize and coordinate many legal challenges to wrongful restrictions of speech at America’s public colleges and universities. Ultimately, over the next year, FIRE will coordinate challenges to speech codes in each of the twelve federal appellate circuits, establishing precedents that will end the scandal of unconstitutional speech codes on college and university campuses once and for all.

“These challenges will strike a blow for the free marketplace of ideas and against campus indoctrination and institutional thought control,” said David A. French. “The way to transform society is not through mandating certain beliefs, words, and attitudes, but through discussion, debate, and persuasion. Like many public universities, Shippensburg—an agent of the state—seeks to impose its values coercively on students. With this legal challenge, we are fighting for each student’s right to follow the lights of his or her own conscience.”

Speech codes are both a moral and legal outrage. For this reason, FIRE also will challenge speech codes by the light of public exposure. In May 2003, FIRE will launch, an online database of the restrictions on speech at public and private colleges and universities across the country. With this searchable website, students, parents, faculty, members of the media, donors, and the public will see how routinely colleges and universities betray their obligations to respect freedom of speech.

“Since the late 1980s, there have been several major legal decisions against unconstitutional speech codes in higher education,” said FIRE CEO Thor L. Halvorssen. “FIRE is moving from scattershot approaches to end the scandal of speech codes to a concerted campaign to restore liberty. Ultimately, this unprecedented assault on speech codes, in the courts and in the public arena, will send a clear message: colleges and universities that decide to restrict free speech must face the moral and legal consequences of that decision.”

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience on our campuses of higher education. The Shippensburg speech codes and the lawsuit can be seen at

Alan Charles Kors, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473;
Greg Lukianoff, Legal Director, FIRE: 215-717-3473;
David A. French, Attorney: 859-231-8500;
William Adair Bonner, Attorney: 610-566-2703;

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