FIRE Brings Four Free Speech Lawsuits in One Day
News Release from FIRE
WASHINGTON, July 1, 2014—This morning, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) coordinated the filing of lawsuits against Ohio University, Chicago State University, Iowa State University, and Citrus College (Calif.). The filings launch FIRE’s new Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project, a national effort to eliminate unconstitutional speech codes through targeted First Amendment lawsuits. The project and lawsuits were announced today at a press conference at the National Press Club.
FIRE has retained preeminent First Amendment attorney Robert Corn-Revere of the national law firm Davis Wright Tremaine as counsel for students and faculty members participating in the Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project.
“Unconstitutional campus speech codes have been a national scandal for decades. But today, 25 years after the first of the modern generation of speech codes was defeated in court, 58% of public campuses still hold onto shockingly illiberal codes,” said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. “For 15 years, FIRE has fought for free speech on campus using public awareness as our main weapon, but more is needed. Today, we announce the launch of the Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project, an expansive new campaign to eliminate speech codes nationwide. We have already coordinated two lawsuits in the past nine months, and this morning we brought four more. The lawsuits will continue until campuses understand that time is finally up for unconstitutional speech codes in academia.”
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. 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 four lawsuits filed today challenge speech codes at public institutions on behalf of students, student groups, and faculty members:
- At Citrus College in California, student Vincenzo Sinapi-Riddle is challenging three unconstitutional policies, including a free speech zone that the school already agreed to abolish after a 2003 lawsuit. Not only did Citrus College reinstitute its “Free Speech Area,” comprising a miniscule 1.37% of campus, but it also requires student organizations to undergo a two-week approval process for any expressive activity.
- Iowa State University (ISU) students Paul Gerlich and Erin Furleigh, leaders of the university’s student chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML ISU), filed suit today after administrators censored T-shirts by creating a vague, overbroad, and retroactive rule that prohibits any use of the school’s name or trademarks to promote “dangerous, illegal or unhealthy products, actions or behaviors.” Administrators claimed that a T-shirt with the message “NORML ISU Supports Legalizing Marijuana” would be interpreted as a university-wide endorsement of marijuana legalization.
- At Chicago State University, administrators have repeatedly attempted to silence CSU Faculty Voice, a blog authored by Professors Phillip Beverly, Robert Bionaz, and other faculty members that exposes what they see as administrative corruption. After bogus accusations of trademark infringement failed to intimidate the professors, CSU hastily adopted a far-reaching cyber bullying policy to silence its critics. It then used the cyber bullying policy to investigate one of the faculty bloggers for harassment, leading to today’s lawsuit from Beverly and Bionaz.
- Ohio University student Isaac Smith, a member of Students Defending Students, a student group that defends fellow students accused of campus disciplinary offenses at no cost, is suing his school for preventing group members from wearing T-shirts reading “We get you off for free”—a joke the group first used in the 1970s. This year, administrators suddenly claimed it “objectified women” and “promoted prostitution.” Ohio University’s speech code, challenged in today’s lawsuit, forbids any “act that degrades, demeans, or disgraces” another.
FIRE has already coordinated two lawsuits against public universities as part of the pre-announcement phase of the Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project:
- In October 2013, FIRE coordinated a lawsuit against Modesto Junior College in California, after a security guard and staffer told a student that he couldn’t pass out copies of the Constitution on Constitution Day 2013. In February, Modesto Junior College settled the lawsuit for $50,000 and made policy revisions that dismantled the institution’s free speech zone.
- In April of this year, FIRE coordinated a lawsuit against the University of Hawaii at Hilo, which similarly told students they couldn’t come out from behind a table to distribute copies of the Constitution and also quarantined free speech to an isolated area of campus that is prone to flooding. The University of Hawaii at Hilo has suspended these policies while the case proceeds.
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, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, 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.
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USA Today: Lawsuits target limits of schools' speech codes