At the University of Texas at Dallas, one student’s anger at receiving a parking ticket landed him a deferred suspension, meaning that any future violation of the student code of conduct could result in his suspension from the university for two years. Fortunately, after a letter from FIRE set the university straight about the constitutional limits on its authority, UT Dallas dropped its sanction against the student.
On April 11, UT Dallas graduate student Cody Hatfield returned to his car to find a ticket for being in the wrong lot on campus. Hatfield, frustrated, shouted that a nearby group of parking officers should “fuck off and get a real job” and called them “fucking parasites.” He then drove off with his middle finger raised. The entire encounter lasted about 40 seconds. Nonetheless, the parking enforcement officers filed complaints against Hatfield.
While the officers took offense to Hatfield’s comments, mere profanity is protected by the First Amendment. As the Supreme Court has held, “mere dissemination of ideas — no matter how offensive to good taste — on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency.’”
Just like a car, campus free speech norms and policies require consistent upkeep to function correctly.
Hatfield nevertheless faced an investigation from the university involving multiple disciplinary meetings. The university eventually found him responsible for “disorderly, lewd, indecent, inappropriate, loud, or obscene conduct or behavior that interferes with the orderly functioning of the University or interferes with an individual’s pursuit of an education.” And when Hatfield appealed, UT Dallas’s vice president for student affairs informed him that, even if his speech is protected, the university asserted the authority to still punish him.
Specifically, Vice President Gene Fitch wrote, “Although one could argue that your conduct might have amounted to constitutionally protected speech and therefore is not subject to penalty under law, that does not mean it did not violate the Student Code of Conduct and therefore is subject to administrative processes and sanctions.”
That is dead wrong, as our Aug. 14 letter explained to the university:
The claim in Vice President Fitch’s letter that UT Dallas may punish Hatfield’s expression even if it is protected by the First Amendment reflects a profound misunderstanding of the university’s constitutional obligations and limitations. UT Dallas is a public university, and thus a state institution. The First Amendment, applicable to the states and their political subdivisions through the Fourteenth Amendment, including their public universities such as UT Dallas, substantially restrains their authority over “Constitutionally protected speech” (to use Vice President Fitch’s terminology).
After FIRE’s letter, the university told Hatfield on Aug. 18 that it had rescinded all charges against him. Hatfield cheered the response.
“My right to protest for what I believe in was under threat from discipline officers at my university,” he said. “They believed that their personal dislike of my message allowed them to ignore free speech laws — I know this, because they said as much when they railroaded me through the discipline process.”
Tim Hecker was honking mad about getting yet another parking ticket. So when he appealed his latest ticket with a strongly worded message, he was threatened with a student conduct violation.
Frustrations about parking are universal, and they have resulted in some of the more relatable speech cases FIRE has dealt with in the past — like at the University of Rhode Island, where a student appealed a parking ticket only to be threatened with referral to the school’s office of student conduct, or at the University of Georgia, where a graduate student raised concerns about limited parking on campus then spent a month facing threats of discipline for doing so.
We are elated to see UT Dallas rescind the charges so promptly, but we continue to urge it, and other public universities, to educate their administrators about their institutions’ obligations under the First Amendment. Claiming that speech is punishable by a public institution even if constitutionally protected reflects a profound misunderstanding of those obligations.
Just like a car, campus free speech norms and policies require consistent upkeep to function correctly. Fortunately, UT Dallas administrators have access to an excellent manual: the First Amendment.
FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).
We're joined by First Amendment attorney Marc Randazza and British journalist Brendan O'Neill to discuss the state of free speech in the United States and Europe. Randazza is a First Amendment attorney and the managing partner at Randazza...