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Organization's twin free speech wins prove that censorship has a cost

This week, Alliance Defending Freedom announced settlements in two First Amendment lawsuits that it brought on behalf of student organizations. The settlements are victories for free speech and highlight the monetary costs of violating students’ expressive rights.

The first case, Fresno State Students for Life v. Thatcher, was filed on behalf of Fresno State Students for Life. On May 2, members of Students for Life began chalking messages on the sidewalks near their university’s library. (The students had obtained permission from college administrators to draw the messages on the sidewalk.) As the students were finishing up, they were approached by Fresno State professor Gregory Thatcher, who told the students that they could only write their messages in the school’s “free speech zone.” (Never mind that Fresno does not have a free speech zone.) After the students told Thatcher that they had permission to chalk, he told them that he would return and erase the messages. Thatcher was true to his word. He returned later that day with students from his class and erased the messages.

Yesterday, ADF announced that the case had settled. Under the terms of the settlement, Thatcher will pay each of the two individual plaintiffs $1,000, pay $15,000 in attorneys’ fees, undergo two hours of First Amendment training, and agree to an injunction prohibiting him from interfering with Students for Life events in the future.

The second suit, Turning Point USA at Macomb Community College v. Macomb Community College, was filed in July. Back in April, three members of Turning Point USA at Macomb were told by a campus police officer that they were violating school policies because they had not obtained permission to engage in expressive activity on campus. (This incident was particularly memorable because one of the students was dressed in a T-Rex costume. [See below.])

Under Macomb’s policies, students were required to obtain permission before engaging in any expressive activity on campus. Even once they obtained permission, students were typically restricted to a “free speech zone” that made up about .001 percent of the school’s campus.

Thankfully, under the terms of a settlement announced Wednesday, Macomb will suspend the challenged policies, and its Board of Trustees will vote on replacement policies by the end of this semester.

Macomb will also pay $10,000 in attorneys’ fees. The amount likely would have been significantly higher had the case not settled so quickly.

These settlements are victories for free speech on college campuses. As a result of the settlements, students at Fresno now know that professors cannot silence speech in the outdoor areas of campus, and students at Macomb no longer need permission from administrators to speak their minds.

FIRE stands ready to help students and faculty members whose speech is silenced on campus. If you or someone you know encounters censorship on campus, please fill out our case submission form.

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