Student sues after university censors nude photographs

ALABAMA — The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education filed a federal lawsuit yesterday against Troy University in Alabama for a speech code FIRE’s President David French called "incompatible with a free society."

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Blake Dews, a senior art major at Troy’s main campus. In the fall of 2003, he designed a photographic display for an assignment about birth, photographing nude models. The artwork did not meet the definition of obscenity under federal or state law, but several photos were taken off display anyway, FIRE’s press release said.

"The photographs in question displayed male full frontal nudity and the university did not consider the photographs to be consistent with our community’s standards," wrote Clif Lusk, coordinator of Troy University media relations, in a statement.

Lusk said in the statement that the university’s attorneys are looking into the matter and beyond that he had no further comment.

"A true injustice was done to this young man by having his artwork taken out after it was set up," said lawyer William Parkman in FIRE’s statement.

FIRE is also taking issue with Troy University’s student handbook, which it called extraordinarily overbroad and vague.

The student handbook says a student is in violation of the university’s sexual harassment policy for "derogatory or demeaning comments about gender, whether sexual or not…name calling, relating stories, gossip, comments, or jokes that may be derogatory."

"No school that is bound by the First Amendment can ban categories as broad and amorphous as ‘gossip’ or ‘suggestive comments’," Greg Lukianoff, director of legal and public advocacy at FIRE, said in a press release.

This is not the first time Troy University, formerly known as Troy State University, has been faced with a lawsuit involving students’ free speech rights. In 1967 Gary Dickey, the editor of the student newspaper at the time, was suspended when he wrote “censored” in the place of an editorial the university’s president told him he could not publish. He sued claiming his First Amendment rights had been violated. The court decided that Dickey should be allowed to return to school in one of the first court cases protecting the rights of the student press.

by Kim Peterson, SPLC staff writer