N.Y. college settles lawsuit with students who challenged campus speech codes

NEW YORK — Officials at SUNY Brockport College have settled a lawsuit over its regulations of speech on campus and have agreed to eliminate many of those restrictions and run notices in the college newspaper letting students know about the changes.

The lawsuit was brought in a federal district court in Buffalo in June 2004 by two SUNY Brockport students who claimed their First Amendment rights were violated by college policies that regulated speech on campus. Those policies, including the colleges “better community standard” limited what students could say on campus, including making jokes that could be construed as offensive to others or hurt their feelings. The students, who were members of the College Republicans, felt they might be targeted because of their conservative views. They said in the complaint they felt they could not say certain things for a fear of punishment.

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization that has been working to defeat speech codes on campuses around the country, helped find the students a lawyer. The case was settled at the beginning of May.

Nick Mascari, spokesman for SUNY Brockport, said the college thought it was best to settle the lawsuit.

“We felt the changes were relatively minor and we were interested in getting back to educating students,” Mascari said.

Those changes include removing the school’s “better community statement” from several college publications, and running advertisements in the student newspaper telling students the free speech rights they have at the university.

The school’s “better community statement” includes the statement: “We affirm that the dignity of our Brockport community is protected when free speech, academic freedom and individual rights are expressed only with responsible and careful regard for the feelings and sensitivities of others.”

Greg Lukianoff, director of legal and public advocacy for FIRE, said the group was happy with the changes to the university’s speech code, including removing a ban on parodying religious figures.

“I was really pleased with how SUNY handled the situation. They immediately decided to discuss it and sit down and make a code that complies with the First Amendment,” Lukianoff said.

FIRE has been involved in litigation over speech codes at other schools before, Lukianoff said. He added that speech codes are harmful because when students fear punishment for speech that is constitutionally protected, they are more likely to censor themselves.

“As soon as universities say, ‘While we adore free speech, anything that hurts someone else’s feelings is bad,” it chills free speech and tells students to keep their mouths shut and that eliminates dialogue and candor,” Lukianoff said.

–By Rebecca McNulty

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