Phi Beta Cons

Litigation Is Beginning to Free Up Speech on Campus

First Amendment lawsuits enjoy victories while highlighting campus absurdities

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is busy making good on its promise to fight for students’ free speech rights through a massive litigation campaign.

Since last year, FIRE’s Stand Up For Free Speech effort has filed nine First Amendment lawsuits against campuses that quash the First Amendment, according to its website. Four of the cases have already enjoyed successes in FIRE’s favor, and the others continue to wind their way through the court system.

FIRE’s early victories in its litigation campaign illustrate that colleges’ limits on free speech are onerous and unconstitutional. But the battle continues.

A recent case, filed in March, involves the Utah-based Dixie State University, whose administrators essentially told students they cannot lampoon U.S. presidents because campus policy forbids “mocking.” Students there had simply sought approval to distribute flyers to promote their libertarian club –  handouts that rebuked big government by playfully lampooning George W. Bush and Barack Obama – but officials denied the flyers on the grounds that they violated school policy, which does not allow students to disparage others, according to the lawsuit.

One flyer stated “learn to hold your leaders accountable” and featured a picture of President Bush with the caption “miss me yet?” next to a photograph of a grumpy cat with the caption “Why aren’t you in prison?” Another flyer featured President Obama with the air quote: “Get in my BELLYYYY!” over the caption “don’t be consumed by the state!” The third flyer pictured Che Guevara with the words “real rebels don’t support centralized state authority.” Each flyer also listed the time, date and location of the group’s meetings.

“The three flyers were reviewed … but denied approval because they ‘mocked individuals’ in violation of Dixie State policies,” the lawsuit stated.

“All [we] did was represent a view different from that of the administration at Dixie State and the status quo, and because of that we were barred from promoting our club and marginalized in pursuing the activities we wanted to on campus,” William Jergins, one of the student plaintiffs, said in an interview with The College Fix. “Especially on a university campus, people who represent differing views and are brave enough to stand up and express them should be celebrated.”

This week, FIRE filed another of its First Amendment lawsuits, this time against Cal Poly Pomona on behalf of college student Nicolas Tomas, who founded the “Vegan Earth Collective,” and was stopped by campus security from handing out flyers on campus until he got a permit, an incident recorded on video. He was handing out literature “about farm animal abuse and the vegan lifestyle,” the lawsuit states.

When Tomas was stopped, “it was the second time in two weeks that the university police had been called to restrict his expressive activities,” according to the lawsuit, which alleges he was also silenced when he voiced his opinion at an “outdoor information fair” that campus officers earned excessive salaries for a public institution

“At Cal Poly, students have to wear a free speech badge in the free speech zone and can only get that authorization on weekdays. This is a cartoonish violation of the First Amendment, almost beyond parody,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff stated. “Requiring students to obtain permits to speak at a public university is not just unconstitutional; it discourages students from engaging with the campus community on the issues they are most passionate about.”

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