Pa. college sued over speech policies that treat students unfairly, advocacy group says

PENNSYLVANIA — The Foundation for Individual Rights inEducation filed a lawsuit against Shippensburg University April 22 claiming itspolicies are overbroad in their restrictions on students’ First Amendmentrights.The lawsuit against the public university in south centralPennsylvania is the first in a series of lawsuits FIRE plans to file againstcolleges over their so-called “speech codes.” Greg Lukianoff,director of legal and public advocacy for FIRE, said that the organization hopesto have at least six cases filed in the next six months and to eventually file asuit in each court circuit, which could affect policies at the two-thirds of thenation’s colleges and universities that have them.ThePhiladelphia-based free-speech organization is suing Shippensburg on behalf oftwo students who wish to remain anonymous, over policies it says have a“chilling effect” on the ability of campus community members tospeak out or debate, particularly on political or religious ideas. The suitcalls into question numerous university codes including its racism and culturaldiversity policy, which states that students should not engage in conduct that“annoys, threatens or alarms others,” and the student code ofconduct, which warns students to refrain from actions that are“inflammatory, demeaning or harmful to others.” The plaintiffs seekan injunction to keep the university from enforcing any speech-restrictivepolicy.The students, referred to in the case as John Doe and Jane Doe,said in the lawsuit that they feared they could be sanctioned under speech codesif they spoke out on controversial topics, or if their political studentorganizations wanted to advance “beliefs regarding issues of race, gender,religion and sexual orientation that may be objectionable or offensive to otherstudents.” FIRE alleges that severe punishments are allowed under theuniversity’s policies. However, since the students have not beensanctioned, the lawsuit is a “facial challenge” regarding theconstitutionality of the policies, not the punishments they mightallow.David French, a lawyer who will represent the students on behalfof FIRE, said the policies at Shippensburg are clearlyunconstitutional.“[The policies] mandate a false notion ofcivility, they mandate a belief in a particular vision of social justice [and]they single out certain kinds of expression as being under more scrutiny thanother kinds of expression,” he said.Peter Gigliotti, spokespersonfor Shippensburg, maintains that the university “strongly andvigorously” defends and encourages the right to free speech. He said freespeech is an important part of the academic mission of theuniversity.Gigliotti said that students sat on the committee thatrecommended changes to the student code of conduct when it last came underreview and that the university’s policies help to ensure the students usetheir right to free speech “in a responsible and appropriatemanner.”The suit also takes issue with Shippensburg’s“free-speech zones,” which restrict organized demonstrations andrallies to two locations on campus. The zones were established in a letter sentto the campus community March 25 by university President Anthony Ceddia, adefendant in the case.The lawsuit holds, “Defendants have enactedunreasonable time, place and manner restrictions on plaintiff’s speech by,among other things, essentially destroying multiple public forums forspeech.”Gigliotti said the president’s letter increased thesize and number of locations of free-speech zones. He said the two areasdesignated for demonstrations are in the center of campus next to the libraryand student union and are high traffic areas on campus. Gigliotti saidit is important to designate areas for demonstration so students can publiclydiscuss and debate the issues “without interfering with the regular[university] operation or harassing or intimidating members of the campuscommunity.”But Lukianoff contends the entire campus should beconsidered a free-speech zone. “To quarantine speech to tinylittle areas shows a general hostility toward speech that we see everyday,” he said.Lukianoff said FIRE is working to systemically ridcampuses of “a weapon that’s used against free speech.”“Even though there were some clear cases in the 1980s and 1990sthat said you can’t have speech codes, it doesn’t matter what youcall them, universities went right ahead and established speech codes anyway,pretty much relying on the fact that nobody would challenge them,”Lukianoff said. “We’re challengingthem.”Shippensburg’s policy, French says, has a lot oflanguage that FIRE believes is representative of other schools and in that sensepresents an ideal test case.“I think that FIRE’s goal and agoal that I share is to begin proactively taking on these unconstitutionalpolicies before they mushroom into a crisis,” French said.