Students sue N.Y. college over speech code that forbids ‘offensive’ expression

NEW YORK — Two students at a publicuniversity in Brockport have filed a lawsuit against their school in hopes ofeliminating its speech code — a policy they claim is unconstitutional andchilling to students who wish to express themselves on campus.Thestudents, Patricia Simpson and Robert Wojick, argue that by having a speech codethat forbids certain “offensive” expression on campus, administrators aresuppressing the views of students by not permitting them to speak out oncontroversial subjects. Lawyers filed the federal lawsuit against the StateUniversity of New York at Brockport on June 3 in Buffalo, N.Y.Thelawsuit is the fourth in a campaign by the Foundation for Individual Rights inEducation to abolish speech codes on public school campuses across the country.FIRE is a nonprofit organization that advocates freedom of expression andacademic freedom at colleges and universities.Simpson and Wojick, whoare members of the SUNY Brockport College Republicans and the school’s politicalscience club, claim their conservative political views increase the risk ofpunishment by the university because others could find their beliefsoffensive.”Even as it became undebatably clear that speech codes wereunconstitutional at public colleges, universities have only adopted more andmore of them,” said Greg Luckianoff, FIRE’s director of legal and publicadvocacy. “When there is a speech code in effect, it has a chilling effect ondiscourse.”Representatives from the university president’s office andthe affirmative action office declined to comment about the school’spolicies.The lawsuit cites two incidents when the students wereinstructed to stop distributing literature on the Brockport campus becauseseveral faculty members disagreed with it. In 2003, the CollegeRepublicans staffed a table on campus and distributed a brochure that criticizeda liberal bias in the media. The brochure contained several, parodic photographsof liberal celebrities calling for the return of the “blacklist.” The studentsclaim they were approached by a faculty member who found the brochure offensiveand demanded the students remove the brochure. The students complied and werenot punished.In another incident cited in the lawsuit, the groupdistributed fliers to students and faculty asking for their help in endingliberal indoctrination on campus. The group says it was approached by anotherfaculty member who said that passing out the fliers was an invasion of privacyand harassment. The faculty member then demanded the group be shut down.”No matter what they call or no matter how [universities] hide theirspeech codes, they’re still unconstitutional,” Luckianoff said.Thelawsuit argues that because the university is a public institution of higherlearning, it is bound by federal and state constitutions to refrain frominfringing on students’ free speech rights.Parts of the school’s policyspecifically limits what students can do — from not allowing them todisplay editorial cartoons depicting religious figures in compromisingsituations to making jokes about a person’s ethnicity.If students arefound in violation of the school’s speech code, punishment ranges from probationto expulsion from the university.

View FIRE’s statement on and links to the speech code at the State University of New York at Brockport.