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Grambling State University Bans Use of E-Mail for Core Political Expression

As the 2010 election season enters full swing, Grambling State University (GSU) is prohibiting its students and faculty members from engaging in a wide swath of constitutionally protected political expression. Today's press release details that the Louisiana public university has forbidden students and faculty from transmitting any "campaign solicitations" via the university's e-mail system, a ban that includes any message that "implies your support" for a political candidate.

The case originated on July 13, when GSU's Office of Media Relations e-mailed all students on campus that "Individuals who receive political campaign solicitations via university email are advised to delete these emails upon receipt." The same e-mail instructed, "DO NOT FORWARD campaign solicitations using university email as this implies your support for the candidate and may be viewed as utilizing university resources for solicitation purposes, a violation of state policy."

FIRE then wrote to GSU President Frank G. Pogue on September 1, pointing out that GSU's policy against forwarding any e-mail containing "campaign solicitations" prohibits political speech at the heart of the First Amendment's protection of free expression. FIRE's letter pointed out that under well established First Amendment precedents, a public university may not broadly deny its students and faculty members the right to engage in such basic political speech as political campaign solicitations.

FIRE's letter also noted that the university's invocation of "state policy" misinterprets applicable law in Louisiana. Article X, Section 9, of the Louisiana Constitution provides far more specific, narrow limitations on political activity than does the broad ban announced by GSU's Office of Media Relations.

Under the Louisiana Constitution, even a member of the most restricted class of state employees may "exercise his right as a citizen to express his opinion privately." FIRE's letter points out that in almost every such case involving a university student, faculty member, or employee, there is little chance that a reasonable person would assume that the sender is speaking on behalf of the university. Where there is ambiguity on this point, the solution is to require the private individual to state that he or she is speaking privately and not for the institution-not to ban such expression entirely.

FIRE asked for a response from President Pogue by September 15, but the university has so far failed to respond. As FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Will Creeley states in our press release, "Every day that Grambling maintains this policy, it is violating the First Amendment. With the election just weeks away, Grambling must act now to restore its students' and faculty members' rights." Indeed.

Sadly, FIRE has seen plenty of such cases of restriction of political expression on campus before. In the fall of 2008, FIRE addressed election-season problems such as GSU's in a "Policy Statement on Political Activity on Campus." Our statement was intended to clarify the rights that university students and faculty members enjoy when it comes to political speech and activity.

This fall, with another election season approaching, we plan to issue a new and revised Policy Statement on Political Activity on Campus. As the Grambling State case demonstrates, there is still very much of a need for clarification on these issues. Our readers are therefore advised to stay tuned to The Torch for an announcement of the re-issue of our policy statement.

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