Lawsuits Launched to Protect Free Speech on College Campuses

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Common Dreams

Lawsuits Launched to Protect Free Speech on College Campuses

Nonprofit's new project brings civil liberties lawsuits against four public universities.

A free speech sign at George Mason University. (photo: flickr / cc / DCjohn)

A Philadelphia-based nonprofit devoted to defending free speech and civil liberties on college campuses filed four lawsuits on Tuesday and announced the launch of its Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project, "a national effort to eliminate unconstitutional speech codes through targeted First Amendment lawsuits."

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), founded in 1999 by University of Pennsylvania professor Alan Charles Kors and Boston civil liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate, brought lawsuits against Citrus College in California, Iowa State University, Chicago State University, and Ohio University. The suits allege that administrations violated student and faculty rights through unconstitutional speech codes that infringe on free expression.

"These violations are ironic because college campuses have been uniquely recognized as the quintessential 'marketplace of ideas' upon which the concept of the First Amendment is based," said Robert Corn-Revere, the attorney hired to represent the students and faculty in these cases.

While FIRE and other organizations have successfully challenged several speech codes in court over the years, restrictive rules on campus speech have still "flourished," Corn-Revere told the Chronicle of Higher Education.

At Citrus College, FIRE is challenging three unconstitutional policies, including the establishment of a tiny free speech zone and a requirement that all student groups request permission two weeks in advance of an expressive activity; the "cumbersome bureaucratic approval process" is tantamount to "unconstitutional prior restraint," the lawsuit reads.  

At Iowa State, censorship of a T-shirt is the central issue — specifically, the rejection of T-shirt designs proposed by the NORML ISU chapter. Citing a policy that prohibits student groups from associating the ISU name with promotion of "dangerous, illegal or unhealthy products, actions or behaviors" and "drugs and drug paraphernalia," the administration refused to allow even a T-shirt that read: NORML ISU Supports Legalizing Marijuana. "In doing so, the Defendants confused political advocacy with illegal conduct and, in the process, suppressed speech protected by the First Amendment," according to the lawsuit.

The Chicago State lawsuit alleges that "CSU hastily adopted a far-reaching cyberbullying policy to silence its critics," including professors Phillip Beverly and Robert Bionaz, who write a blog that exposes what they and other faculty members perceive as administrative corruption. The administration claims their Faculty Voice blog violates the cyberbullying policy, which prohibits "intentional and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and electronic devices”

And a T-shirt was also the catalyst for the Ohio University suit, which challenges what FIRE describes as "OU’s vague and overly broad speech codes."

"By imposing a real cost for violating First Amendment rights, the Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project intends to reset the incentives that currently push colleges towards censoring student and faculty speech," a press release reads. "Lawsuits will be filed against public colleges maintaining unconstitutional speech codes in each federal circuit. After each victory by ruling or settlement, FIRE will target another school in the same circuit—sending a message that unless public colleges obey the law, they will be sued."

The project seems to have struck a chord. Here's FIRE's Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Will Creeley on Twitter this morning:

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