The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education on Tuesday announced a significant litigation effort to fight campus speech codes in colleges and universities across the country.
FIRE, a non-profit foundation that advocates for academic freedom, filed four separate lawsuits against Ohio University, Iowa State University, Chicago State University, and Citrus College in California. The filings launched FIRE's new Stand Up for Free Speech Litigation Project, a national effort aimed at eliminating campus speech codes.
FIRE president Greg Lukianoff characterized speech policies on most college campuses as “unambiguously unconstitutional” and vowed to persevere. “The lawsuits will continue until campuses understand that time is finally up for unconstitutional speech codes in academia,” he said.
The lawsuits filed today were brought by students at each college. FIRE retained accomplished First Amendment lawyer Robert Corn-Revere of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP.
At Ohio University, student Isaac Smith, a member of Students Defending Students, was sanctioned by college administrators after the school found his group’s T-shirt violated the campus speech code, which forbids any “act that degrades, demeans, or disgraces” another. Students Helping Students is an organization that offers free advice to students engaged in Ohio University’s disciplinary process. The T-shirts in question, which boasted the group would “get you off for free” were said to “promote prostitution” by the administration.
At Iowa State University, students Paul Gerlich and Erin Furleigh sued after administrators created a rule FIRE calls "vague, over broad, and retroactive” that prohibits the use of the university’s trademark with any activity that promotes “dangerous, illegal or unhealthy products, actions, or behaviors.” Gerlich and Furleigh are each officers of ISU’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. ISU administrators claimed T-shirts disseminated by the group would be interpreted as a university-wide endorsement of marijuana legalization.
Two members of the Chicago State University faculty, Professors Phillip Beverly and Robert Bionaz brought a lawsuit to resist attempts to stifle CSU Faculty Voice, an online blog sometimes critical of the university’s administration. CSU adopted a cyberbullying policy FIRE describes as “far-reaching,” which was subsequently used to investigate a faculty blogger for harassment.
At California's Citrus College, student Vincenzo Sinapi-Riddle was sanctioned after discussing his petition against National Security Agency surveillance outside the college's free speech area, which compromises 1.37 percent of the campus. He is also challenging a policy that requires organizations to undergo a two-week approval process for any expressive activity.
Though the courts have generally been unfriendly to campus speech codes, Lukianoff says they persist because of ignorance and political correctness. He also said the codes serve as liability shields for colleges, and have become more deeply engrained in campus culture because of the pervasive bureaucratization of universities.