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Stand Up For Speech Plaintiff: ‘Code of Conduct Change Could Not Have Happened Without Lawsuit’

By February 6, 2015

Following a fourth victory for FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project Monday, news outlets across the country reported on Ohio University’s (OU’s) agreement to revise its speech codes in order to comply with the First Amendment. Among them, an editorial from Ohio University’s student newspaper, The Post, stood out—and warranted a response from student-plaintiff Isaac Smith.

The Post editorial supports the outcome of Smith’s case against the university: policies that protect student speech. It argues, however, that bringing a federal lawsuit wasn’t really necessary:

This lawsuit has been essentially $32,000 worth of, “let’s sit and talk.” And while we’re glad to see the changes in OU’s Code of Conduct — and understand that Smith’s legal fees and payout are little more than a drop in the bucket for a university with a multimillion dollar budget — we think both parties could’ve achieved the same goals after having conversation rather than a lawsuit.

But as Smith knows well, “having a conversation” with campus administrators often results in slow progress or no progress at all. Smith wrote back to The Post to detail his experience and explain why filing a lawsuit was absolutely necessary in order to ensure student speech was protected on OU’s campus:

Changing the Code is something that [the student organization] Students Defending Students has been lobbying in favor of for years; it is a mission that we have been on since our founding in 1976. Until the re-write of the Code that just happened — and that has yet to be implemented — it had not been substantially changed since the 1970s. Countless conversations have surely been had, and significant change did not materialize in a timely fashion.

The First Amendment cannot wait for the excessively slow and burdensome process of changing the Code of Conduct. Students’ right to free expression must be respected immediately, and that is what this lawsuit has accomplished: the unconstitutional parts of the Code of Conduct have been stripped away, effective right now. That change, because of how university committees function, could not have come without a lawsuit requiring it.

Smith viewed his fight for free speech as a duty:

When we as students of an institution of higher education and good citizens of the United States see a violation of the Constitution as glaring as OU’s Code was before Monday, we are morally obligated to fight back and ensure rights are respected as quickly as possible. The lawsuit made sure that happened.

FIRE commends Smith and our other student-plaintiffs for standing up for speech. If colleges and universities want to avoid a lawsuit, we encourage them to get in touch with FIRE and work with us to ensure that all protected expression is allowed on campus. Students whose schools refuse to make necessary changes to their speech codes, and who want to take the next step, should email standup@thefire.org.

Schools: Ohio University Cases: FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project Ohio University – Stand Up For Speech Lawsuit