The plan consists of filing consecutive lawsuits “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,” FIRE said.
“In 1989, the first of the modern generation of speech codes was defeated in federal court in a case called Doe v. Michigan….But amazingly, all these years later, campus speech codes are still alive and thriving,” FIRE president Greg Lukianoff said at a press conference last week at the National Press Club in Washington.
“The half-dozen lawsuits we have already filed are just the beginning,” Lukianoff continued. “More suits are already in the pipeline, and we’re confident that after this announcement more students and faculty members will come forward to challenge speech codes in court.”
“Many universities maintain their speech codes not just because they may actually believe in a mythical ‘right not to be offended’ on campus, but because they believe that there is no ‘downside’….In this amoral calculus, free speech loses,” Lukianoff noted.
“FIRE has therefore decided that we need to change the incentive structure to one that favors freedom of speech on college campuses rather than the suppression of dissent.”
FIRE's initial lawsuits were filed against:
- Chicago State University (CSU): Some faculty are suing the administration for trying to shut down a blog that is critical of CSU’s policies. The Chicago Tribune reports that CSU’s attorneys claim the website violates school policies and unlawfully uses university trademarks
- Citrus College in Glendora, CA: An official told a student in 2013 that he would be expelled if he did not stay inside the school’s free-speech zone while gathering signatures for a petition against the National Security Agency (NSA).
- Iowa State University: Students affiliated with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) had their t-shirt design rejected by university staff. According to court documents, this was because the shirts seemed to link the school with illegal drug activity.
- Ohio State University: Court documents claim that members of Students Defending Students could not wear their shirts saying, “We get you off for free,” after officials associated the phrase with prostitution and objectifying women. Students, though, claim that this phrase continues to be a long-standing joke from the 1970s.
However, university officials previously targeted by FIRE claim that the group inaccurately portrays their free speech policies.
In March, Joan Smith, chancellor of the Yosemite Community College District (YCCD), wrote in the Modesto Bee about an incident in which YCCD paid $50,000 and changed its speech code after Robert Van Tuinen, a U.S. Army veteran and Modesto Junior College (MJC) student, gave FIRE a series of videos documenting that he was not allowed to distribute copies of the U.S. Constitution on campus on Constitution Day in 2013.
“Unfortunately, the way our legal system works, sometimes institutions of higher education are forced to settle, even when they are being misrepresented, to avoid spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees,” Smith said. “Either way, it’s a losing proposition for the college.”
But FIRE responded with a June video stating that the case was part of a larger problem, and that two MJC professors had also been censured for criticizing the school administration.
“Even after censoring Van Tuinen, having its act caught on camera and watched by hundreds of thousands of viewers, being sued, and ultimately agreeing to revise its policies and pay a $50,000 settlement, MJC apparently couldn’t see what it had done wrong,” declared Peter Bonilla, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program.
“For that matter, even after having its unconstitutional policies and practices thrust into the spotlight, MJC took more than two months after being sued to agree to suspend its free speech zone policies—on whose constitutionality there really was no question.”