Pa. judge suspends college’s rule against speech that might ‘provoke’

PENNSYLVANIA — A federal judge issued a preliminaryinjunction last week to prevent Shippensburg University from enforcing portionsof its student conduct code that he said may violate the FirstAmendment.U.S. District Judge John Jones III issued the Sept. 4 rulingafter finding that sections of the code designed to promote tolerance restrictedstudents’ free-speech rights and were likely to be found unconstitutional infuture proceedings.“On its face,” Jones wrote, “it isapparent that the Code of Conduct prohibits speech that is protected by theFirst Amendment.”His injunction prohibits enforcement of rulesthat prevent students from communicating in ways that might “provoke,harass, intimidate or harm another.”Though the school claimed thelawsuit was irrelevant because the code had not been enforced for years,“Having the rules simply on the book showed students that the school wasnot tolerant of everyone’s beliefs and attitudes,” said Walter Bair,a junior at the school and plaintiff in the case. “I hope this lawsuitallows students to openly express their beliefs without the fear of beingpunished.”Bair, one of two students involved in the lawsuit, suedafter school administrators forced students to remove anti-Osama Bin Ladenposters from dorm room doors. Administrators at the public school deemed theposters, which featured Osama Bin Laden in cross hairs, offensive to the campuscommunity. Recent Shippensburg graduate Ellen Wray sued because of whatshe said was a lack of tolerance on campus for all opinions. “Iwas tired of the school’s code and [the] constant feeling of my freespeech being suppressed,” Wray said. “Because I was conservative, Iwasn’t subject to the same rights as others.”UniversityPresident Anthony Ceddia issued a statement in which he promised that the schoolwould comply with the ruling. “We respect the judge’s rulingand hope that whatever we come up with will meet constitutional muster anduphold our values,” said Peter Gigliotti, spokesman for the universitynear Harrisburg, Pa.David French, lead attorney for the plaintiffs,said the judge’s ruling recognizes that college students have the same freespeech rights as other adults.“Under the wording of the [code],free speech was only protected if it didn’t ‘provoke,’”said French said.Though the University has not decided whether to appealthe injunction, Ceddia said in his statement that “[w]e will remain fullyengaged in this on-going legal review.”The Philadelphia-basedFoundation for Individual Rights in Education filed suit on behalf of the twostudents in April, as part of an effort to file similar student speech lawsuitsin federal courts throughout the country. The suits seek to invalidate codes ofconduct and limited free-speech zones — areas designated on campus forstudents to speak out or protest — that the organization claims areunconstitutional.The judge did not rule on the legality of thefree-speech zones at Shippensburg in his preliminary injunction. The case awaitstrial in the district court.FIRE is involved in a similar case involvingfree speech zones at Texas Tech University. It recently settled a lawsuit withCitrus College in California when the school agreed to abandon its free-speechzone rules.Though the ruling on the conduct code is non-binding in otherdistricts, French said he hopes that it “is going to be very persuasive toother judges in similar cases.”

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