Penn State, Georgia Tech change speech policies

PENNSYLVANIA — Georgia Tech and Penn State universities have decided to change their anti-discrimination and harassment policies, or so-called “speech codes,” after students at both schools brought lawsuits saying that such rules violate their right to free speech.

A.J. Fluehr, the plaintiff in the Penn State case, argued that the policies suppress discussion of controversial viewpoints. In his lawsuit, he also challenged the university’s designation of 12 specified zones where students can engage in “expressive activity.” Penn State changed its policies on what the lawsuit called “speech codes” and “speech zones,” as part of a settlement agreement, said David French, Fluehr’s attorney.

“I’m very happy with the changes,” Fluehr said. “One of the main problems with the policies, first of all, was the language — it was so broad and so restrictive.”

Fluehr said the changes will allow students to speak their mind freely, “an important” part of the college experience. Penn State officials maintain that the policies were already in the process of being changed before the lawsuit and that the university never had speech codes or speech zones.

“Penn State has no speech zones, free speech is embraced anywhere,” said Tysen Kendig, a spokesman for the university. “I think there was some confusion in characterizing some high profile areas where students hold events and demonstrations.”

In a related case, Georgia Tech has also revised its policy that forbade “acts of intolerance” in residence halls after two students filed a lawsuit against the university earlier this year, claiming the policy limited free speech. They also claimed that the rule would unfairly label them as harassers or intolerant for expressing their views.

James Fetig, the university’s associate vice president for communications and public affairs, said they removed some language to make the policy “more general.”

French, who is also the lawyer for the students in the Georgia Tech case, said the judge ordered that the university cannot change the speech policy for five years without approval.

One part of the Georgia Tech lawsuit is still pending, though, concerning how the university funds student organizations and its Safe Space Training Program, which the plaintiffs claimed advanced some religions while inhibiting others.

According to the university’s Web site, the Safe Space Training Program is meant “to foster a social climate in which others do not feel the need to express anti-gay attitudes in order to “fit in,’ dispel negative stereotypes and present factually accurate information about GLBT people.”

The lawsuit described the plaintiffs as having deeply held religious beliefs on matters relating to homosexual behavior. The program, they said, sends the message that the plaintiffs “are outsiders and not full members of the Institute’s community.”

French said the discovery deadline for the Georgia Tech case is in the beginning of December.