Federal court strikes down Texas univ. speech restrictions

TEXAS –Texas Tech University’s campus speech code regulations are unconstitutional, a federal district court ruled last month, forcing the university to loosen restrictions on student speech and creating a precedent that could affect other campuses with similar policies.

Judge Sam Cummings of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas ruled in favor of plaintiff Jason Roberts in part, saying his personal First Amendment rights had not been violated but that the university’s policies requiring prior permission before one could speak on campus were unconstitutional.

In 2003 the university denied Roberts’ request to give a speech about the sinfulness of homosexuality outside the school’s designated free speech area, a 20-foot-wide gazebo that is located near the student union and holds 40 people. Free speech inside the gazebo did not require prior permission.

Texas Tech University’s speech code also banned “insults,” “ridicule” and “personal attacks,” and required students to obtain permission from the university’s grounds use committee six days in advance in order to speak on campus. The code was not well-defined, Cummings ruled. Additionally, when students were forced to obtain permission six days in advance of speaking, they could not respond to current events, he said.

After Roberts’ lawsuit was filed in July 2003, Texas Tech began widening existing campus speech zones and added five additional speech zones.

In his opinion, Cummings wrote, “to the extent the campus has park areas, sidewalks, streets, or other similar common areas, these areas are public forums, at least for the University’s students, irrespective of whether the University has designated them or not,” and ruled that the university must present a compelling interest in order to limit speech in those public forums.

The court also ruled that the school’s prior permission requirement was unconstitutional. “The University has failed to convince this Court that burdening all expressive activities in public forums with its prior permission requirement is necessary to serve its significant interests, even though the University may indeed have a significant interest in controlling some expressive activities.”

The court suggested that the school narrowly define its policy by requiring prior permission for specific activities, such as those that are promoted in advance by a student organization or those that more than 25 people will attend.

The court also rejected the school’s speech code limitations because its restrictions on “insults,” “ridicule” and “personal attacks” were too broad. “This Court is of the opinion that application of the Speech Code to the public forum areas on campus would suppress substantially more than threats, fighting words, or libelous statements that may be considered constitutionally unprotected speech, to include much speech that, no matter how offensive, is not proscribed by the First Amendment.”

Finally, the court rejected the school’s policy regulating distribution of printed materials on campus for the same reasons it rejected the prior permission requirements and speech code prohibitions, saying the school’s policy was too narrow.

A timeline for Texas Tech University to implement permanent policy changes has not yet been set, said university Associate General Counsel Victor Mellinger.

The university will comply with the judge’s revisions, but the university “never really thought of ourselves as having a speech code per se,” Mellinger said.

“That was never the intent,” Mellinger added.

But the university’s policies were “another indication of how state universities have departed from their academic mission of robust debate and their surprising lack of regard for First Amendment rights,” said attorney Jordan Lorence with the Alliance Defense Fund, a religious advocacy group.

Plaintiff Jason Roberts said he is confident the school will implement the new policies. “Even the administration thought the decision was fair and just, so I don’t see why they wouldn’t want to comply with it,” Roberts said.

Roberts has not decided whether to appeal the ruling on his personal First Amendment rights.