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Students Sue San Francisco State University over Unconstitutional Speech Codes

SAN FRANCISCO, July 9, 2007—San Francisco State University (SFSU) is the latest target of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s (FIRE’s) highly successful Speech Codes Litigation Project. In cooperation with FIRE, attorneys filed a federal lawsuit against SFSU for violating the First Amendment rights of its students. The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a Phoenix-based nonprofit organization devoted to protecting religious liberty, filed the suit.

“Through its policies and practices, SFSU has violated and continues to violate the First Amendment rights of every student on its campus,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “Beginning today, SFSU will have to answer for its actions in court."

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are the SFSU College Republicans and two of the group’s members, undergraduates Leigh Wolf and Trent Downes. SFSU’s College Republicans were put on trial by a campus tribunal this past spring for stepping on makeshift Hamas and Hezbollah flags as part of an anti-terrorism rally they held in October, 2006. FIRE wrote twice to SFSU President Robert A. Corrigan to stress that no American public university can lawfully prosecute students for engaging in peaceful protest or for “desecrating” flags of any kind. The university ignored this warning, with a university spokesperson telling the San Francisco Chronicle that the issue was not flag desecration but rather “the desecration of Allah.” Despite having the power to dismiss the charges at any time, SFSU dragged the plaintiffs through a five-month investigation and hearing before ultimately clearing the group of “harassment” charges.

“The Supreme Court ruled long ago that the First Amendment protects the right to burn even an American flag in political protest. There are no special protections for Hamas and Hezbollah flags. SFSU knew this, and there is no excuse for putting these students through a five-month ordeal. We hope the lawsuit will stop the university from committing future abuses,” Lukianoff said.

In addition to holding SFSU accountable for unlawfully mistreating the plaintiffs on the basis of their constitutionally protected expression, the lawsuit asks the court to strike down several unconstitutional speech codes at SFSU.

The speech codes at issue in the suit include SFSU’s Student Group Misconduct policy, which permits student organizations to be held collectively accountable “when the behavior is inconsistent with SF State goals, principles and policies;” its Sexual Harassment Policy, which allows the university to punish any behavior that “emphasizes another person’s sexuality;” and a portion of its Student Code that prohibits “intimidation” and “harassment” without defining either of those terms.

FIRE’s Speech Codes Litigation Project—an initiative working to dismantle  unconstitutional speech codes on public university campuses—has attained crucial victories at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, Texas Tech University, the State University of New York at Brockport, and California’s Citrus College.

“Public universities must be made to understand that disregarding the First Amendment rights of their students will have consequences,” Lukianoff said. “FIRE will continue its litigation project for as long as it takes to get universities to understand this crucial point.”

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 at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at

Greg Lukianoff, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473;
David French, Director, Center for Academic Freedom, ADF: 480-444-0020;
Robert A. Corrigan, President, SFSU: 415-338-1381;

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