Victory over San Francisco State University’s Unconstitutional Speech Codes

March 4, 2008

Chalk up another victory for FIRE’s Speech Codes Litigation Project. Today’s press release discusses the settlement of the lawsuit against San Francisco State University (SFSU), challenging the school’s unconstitutional speech codes. The press release explains:

SFSU’s speech codes had banned expression clearly protected by the United States Constitution. For example, the college’s sexual harassment policy defined sexual harassment as “one person’s distortion of a university relationship by unwelcome conduct which emphasizes another person’s sexuality.” A policy regulating student organizations had banned any conduct “inconsistent with SF State goals, principles, and policies.” In addition, the SFSU College Republicans was unconstitutionally targeted for the content of the group’s expression in 2006.

In November 2007, U.S. Magistrate Judge Wayne Brazil issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting SFSU and the California State University (CSU) System as a whole from enforcing several of the policies challenged in the lawsuit. Yesterday’s settlement permanently revises those policies and affects the more than 400,000 students enrolled in the CSU System.

While SFSU denies any wrongdoing in the settlement, the university has nevertheless agreed to make significant changes to a number of policies to address constitutional concerns about free expression. For example, SFSU is changing its definition of sexual harassment to “conduct that is sufficiently severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive as to substantially disrupt or undermine a person’s ability to participate in or to receive the benefits, services, or opportunities of the university.” It is also removing the student organization policy prohibiting conduct “inconsistent with SF State goals, principles, and policies.” The CSU System is retaining a statement urging students to be civil to one another, but it will add a disclaimer indicating that this statement cannot be used as grounds for disciplinary action against students.

The suit was filed by Alliance Defense Fund attorney David Hacker and appeared in an Associated Press article yesterday.

We have said it time and time againthe unconstitutional speech codes that have become the norm at so many universities simply cannot stand in a court of law. This victory at SFSU is just the latest victory in our highly successful Speech Codes Litigation Project. With the help of our legal network and students willing to step forward and take on unconstitutional policies at their schools, we hope to see many similar victories in the future.

Schools:  San Francisco State University

Cases:  San Francisco State University: Speech Code Litigation Project