ATHENS, Ohio, February 2, 2015—In a settlement signed today, Ohio University (OU) agreed to revise several policies that restricted free speech on campus rather than fight a student-led First Amendment lawsuit in court. This marks the fourth victory in a row for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s (FIRE’s) Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project.
Student Isaac Smith sued OU in July 2014 after OU administrators ordered Smith and other members of the Students Defending Students (SDS) campus organization to stop wearing T-shirts with the three-decade-old slogan, “We get you off for free.” SDS provides free assistance to students accused of disciplinary infractions—an activity that rarely endears the group to the college administration. The slogan was first used by SDS in the 1970s.
Smith and his fellow SDS members obeyed the administrators’ orders to stop wearing the shirts because they feared punishment under the vague language of OU’s Student Code of Conduct. The Student Code of Conduct prohibited any “act that degrades, demeans, or disgraces” another student as well as “taking any reckless, but not accidental, action from which mental or bodily harm could result to another person.” As part of today’s settlement, OU has changed these policies to comply with the First Amendment. It will also pay $32,000 for Smith’s damages and attorneys’ fees.
“Because of Isaac Smith’s willingness to stand up for his constitutional rights, OU has revised its vague speech codes,” said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. “For too long, universities have engaged in censorship with little or no fear of repercussions. FIRE is bringing that era to an end.”
Attorneys Robert Corn-Revere, Ronald London, and Lisa Zycherman of the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine represented Smith. OU’s settlement comes on the heels of settlements with the University of Hawaii System and Citrus College in December 2014. So far, colleges have settled four of the seven Stand Up For Speech lawsuits coordinated by FIRE for a total of $242,000 in fees and damages. The other three lawsuits are still being litigated. With this victory at OU, the project has successfully protected the free speech rights of over 135,000 students.
“I’m glad I stood up for speech and got my school to change its policies,” said Smith. “FIRE and my attorneys at Davis Wright Tremaine are great allies to have and I’m very excited to see more free speech on campus.”
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, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, 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 thefire.org.
Katie Barrows, Communications Coordinator, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org