Lawsuits Accuse 4 Colleges of Unconstitutional Restrictions on Speech

July 02, 2014

A watchdog group for free speech on campuses is stepping up its efforts to eradicate student-conduct codes and other campus policies that it says unconstitutionally restrict students’ and faculty members’ rights to freedom of expression.

At a news conference here on Tuesday, the group, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, announced that it had coordinated the filing of four federal lawsuits that accuse colleges of using such policies to shut down student activities and discourage freedom of speech.

The institutions named in the lawsuits are Citrus College, in California, and Chicago State, Iowa State, and Ohio Universities.

The lawsuits are "just the beginning" of a new campaign, the group’s president, Greg Lukianoff, told reporters at a gathering at the National Press Club.

Mr. Lukianoff said the new Stand Up for Speech campaign would challenge universities "in public for what they refuse to do in private." He called it an opportunity for colleges "to do the right thing and dump their speech codes. If not, we might see them in court."

Nearly 60 percent of public universities designate areas on their campuses as free-speech zones, where freedom of expression is allowed, and restrict public speech elsewhere, says the foundation, which is known as Fire.

Such policies sprang up in the 1980s and 1990s, said Robert Corn-Revere, a partner in the Washington office of the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP who is among those pressing litigation in the new campaign for Fire.

The foundation and other organizations have successfully challenged many of those codes in court, Mr. Corn-Revere said in an interview. But instead of going away, he said, restrictive rules on campus speech have "flourished."

Complaints in the Lawsuits

Fire says some universities have abused their policies and inappropriately punished students and faculty members for exercising their free-speech rights. It used the four lawsuits filed on Tuesday as examples.

In the lawsuit against Citrus College, students say they weren’t allowed to leave a designated free-speech zone to collect signatures protesting the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance. The college did not respond to a request for comment.

At Chicago State University, administrators reportedly ordered a faculty group to shut down its blog, CSU Faculty Voice, because faculty members posting there were seen as falsely acting as an authorized representative of the university. University officials did not return a request for comment.

The suit against Iowa State University contends that it banned Norml ISU, a student group that supports legalizing marijuana, from using the university logo on T-shirts, even though the T-shirt designs had been approved by the institution’s trademark office.

"The work that we do should allow us to use our voices as a group to do bigger things than we could do individually," Erin Furleigh, a junior studying genetics and premedicine at Iowa State who is vice president of Norml ISU, said at the news conference. "At ISU, we’ve been made to feel as if voicing our opinions is wrong, and it’s not."

Iowa State officials said they hadn’t seen the lawsuit and didn’t want to comment on specific allegations.

"Student organizations at Iowa State University have the right to express their views, but they can’t attribute those views to the university," John McCaroll, a university spokesman, said in an email. "Iowa State has the right and obligation to manage the use of our university trademarks."

The suit against Ohio University centers on a student group that offers help to other students in navigating the code of conduct. Members of the student group say they were discouraged by administrators from wearing T-shirts that advertised the group’s services with the slogan "We get you off for free" because the administrators thought the message was demeaning and degrading.

But Katie L. Quaranta, a spokeswoman, said the university wanted to make clear that administrators had not directed the students not to wear the T-shirts and that "no student-misconduct action was ever threatened or taken."

"As educators, we respect freedom of speech and expression as core values at Ohio University," Ms. Quaranta wrote in an email. "We also believe that an important part of the educational process is to hold discussions and present other points of view. Such a discussion occurred when administrators suggested to the student organization that the T-shirts might inhibit their efforts to serve other students. University administrators were exercising their responsibilities as educators when they pointed out to the student organization how their actions might be viewed by others."

Other Litigation

Fire has been involved in other recent cases that challenged restrictive campus speech codes, including one that was settled this year at Modesto Junior College, in California.

In that settlement, the college agreed to change its policies to allow free speech in open areas across the campus and to pay $50,000 to a student it had allegedly prohibited from distributing copies of the U.S. Constitution outside a free-speech area.

The college agreed to the settlement but disputes some of the allegations in the case. Joan E. Smith, chancellor of the Yosemite Community College District, which includes Modesto, said there was no malicious intent behind the rules regarding campus protests. The policy was meant to keep demonstrations peaceful and to avoid clashes between groups with opposing views, she said. It "was established to keep campuses safe, not to impeach free speech."

In a similar case, a lawsuit is pending against the University of Hawaii at Hilo, where students also contend they were prohibited from distributing copies of the Constitution outside a designated free-speech zone. The university said it did not comment on pending lawsuits.

In both cases, Fire assisted in filing the lawsuits and the plaintiffs were represented by lawyers from Davis Wright Tremaine.

Update (7/2/2014, 12:17 p.m.): This article originally stated that the University of Hawaii at Hilo did not respond to a request for comment. After deadline, the university did respond, indicating that it does not comment on pending lawsuits. The article has been updated with that response.