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SPLC's LoMonte: Why the Oakland U. Decision Puts All Students at Risk

Last week, U.S. District Judge Patrick J. Duggan ignored important First Amendment principles and settled law when he held that Oakland University did not violate former student Joseph Corlett’s First Amendment rights by expelling him for the content of his class assignment. Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte wrote about the case yesterday to review First Amendment protections and to explain why all students have a stake in this decision. To start, LoMonte clarifies the very limited circumstances under which student speech may be censored: In the school setting, the Supreme Court has recognized that a few First Amendment compromises are necessary because of compelling public-policy considerations. These include: (1) the need to protect sensitive young listeners from harmful speech inappropriate for their maturity level, (2) the need to avoid provoking audience members to lash out in disruptive ways, and (3) the need for a school to disassociate itself from remarks that might be mistaken for officially school-sanctioned speech.None of those rationales for reducing students’ First Amendment rights applies to a community college student’s essay. But instead of conducting an analysis of whether punishing Corlett’s speech was necessary in order to protect others or preserve the school’s integrity, Judge Duggan summarily stated that “First Amendment expression was not involved” because Corlett’s speech was written as part of a class assignment. LoMonte urges readers to consider what this baseless conclusion means for students: If Judge Duggan is correct ... then there is nothing a school can do to a student in response to in-class speech that violates the First Amendment. An art history student could be suspended from college because her professor disagrees with her critique of his favorite sculptor. A political science student could be expelled from college for expressing views critical of President Obama in a research paper. For more of LoMonte’s excellent analysis of Judge Duggan’s opinion and its ramifications for college students, head over to the Student Press Law Center.

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