CINCINNATI, February 23, 2012—A student group filed suit yesterday against the University of Cincinnati in federal district court, alleging that the university’s tiny “free speech zone” violates the First Amendment. The University of Cincinnati chapter of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) and its president, student Christopher Morbitzer, sought permission to gather signatures and talk to students across campus in support of a statewide “right to work” ballot initiative, but the request was denied. Morbitzer was told that if any YAL members were seen “walk[ing] around campus” gathering signatures, campus security would be alerted.
Morbitzer and YAL seek a temporary restraining order to prevent the University of Cincinnati (UC) from quarantining the group’s advocacy to the university’s free speech zone. The suit was filed by Ohio’s 1851 Center for Constitutional Law in cooperation with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Ohio attorney Curt C. Hartman joins the 1851 Center’s Ryan Walters as co-counsel.
“The University of Cincinnati is a public, taxpayer-supported institution that brazenly refuses to respect the First Amendment rights of its students,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “Herding students who wish to engage in core expressive activity into a tiny ‘free speech zone’ may make life easier for campus bureaucrats, but it betrays the idea of the university as a true marketplace of ideas. FIRE has warned UC in the past, and now the university must answer for its disregard for free speech in federal court.”
UC requires all “demonstrations, pickets, and rallies” to be held in a “Free Speech Area” that comprises just 0.1% of the university’s 137-acre West Campus. University policy further requires that all expressive activity in the free speech zone be registered with the university a full ten working days in advance, threatening that “[a]nyone violating this policy may be charged with trespassing.” The suit, filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, Western Division, challenges the constitutionality of both requirements.
Morbitzer and YAL ask the court to ensure that they be allowed to advocate throughout campus for the Ohio Workplace Freedom Amendment, a recently announced ballot initiative. To qualify for inclusion on the ballot in November, supporters of the amendment must gather at least 385,000 valid signatures by July 9, 2012. On February 9, Morbitzer and YAL requested permission to immediately begin collecting signatures and discussing the merits of the amendment with their fellow students across campus, citing the need to get started right away.
UC denied that request, instead assigning the group to the “Free Speech Area” and imposing a waiting period. UC even told Morbizter that he and his group were “not permitted to walk around,” and stated that “if we are informed that you are, Public Safety will be contacted.”
Working in conjunction with the 1851 Center, FIRE aided Morbitzer in finding counsel and filing suit.
UC has been on notice that its policy is unconstitutional for more than four years. FIRE named UC’s policy its “Speech Code of the Month” in December 2007, calling it “truly shameful” that a public university “threatens students with criminal prosecution merely for exercising their constitutionally protected rights outside of the paltry area it has designated for free speech.” FIRE also wrote to UC in December 2008, explaining that UC’s free speech zone represented a serious threat to liberty on campus.
FIRE’s efforts have defeated similar free speech zones on campuses across the nation, including the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, West Virginia University, the University of Nevada at Reno, Citrus College in California, Valdosta State University in Georgia, and Texas Tech University.
“UC’s illiberal decision to restrict this kind of political speech to one tenth of one percent of its campus is shocking enough, but making students register to use that space ten working days in advance is even worse,” said FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Will Creeley. “UC cannot deny its students their First Amendment rights. FIRE is confident that UC’s free speech zone will be the latest in a long line to fall in federal court.”
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 thefire.org.
Will Creeley, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org