Victory for Free Speech at Texas Tech

By October 5, 2004

LUBBOCK, Texas, October 5, 2004—In the third victory in the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s (FIRE’s) ongoing legal campaign for free speech on America’s public campuses, a federal judge struck down Texas Tech University’s speech code. The judge also ordered large areas of the university to be opened to free expression and prohibited the university from enforcing several other severe limitations on speech. The case against Texas Tech was coordinated by FIRE and filed by the Liberty Legal Institute and the Alliance Defense Fund against Texas Tech President Donald R. Haragan as part of FIRE’s ongoing Speech Codes Litigation Project.

“FIRE is turning the tide in the battle for free speech on campus,” remarked David French, president of FIRE. “As one court after another strikes down public college and university speech codes in response to FIRE’s Speech Codes Litigation Project, college and university administrators are rapidly becoming aware that neither the public nor the courts will support unconstitutional restrictions of basic freedoms on campus.”

U.S. District Judge Sam R. Cummings of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas ruled on September 30, 2004, that many of Texas Tech’s policies were unconstitutional. Along with striking down a speech code that banned, among other things, “insults,” “ridicule,” and “personal attacks,” Judge Cummings determined that a university policy requiring students to get prior permission before engaging in even casual free expression was not sufficiently “narrowly tailored” to be enforced against students at this public university. Judge Cummings stated that “the Prior Permission section…sweeps too broadly in imposing a burden on a substantial amount of expression that does not interfere with any significant interests of the University.” The judge found a policy limiting the distribution of pamphlets unconstitutional for the same reason.

Texas Tech had also specified certain “free speech zones” in which freedom of speech would not be restricted. At first, the sole such zone at Texas Tech was a single 20 foot-diameter gazebo—for a campus of 28,000 students. After FIRE intervened last year, the university added acres of additional free speech zones. Judge Cummings further augmented that area by ruling that the policy must be interpreted to allow free speech for students on “park areas, sidewalks, streets, or other similar common areas…irrespective of whether the University has so designated them or not.”

Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy, noted, “The court decision against Texas Tech is cause for all friends of liberty to celebrate. FIRE’s speech code lawsuits are winning everywhere they are filed, and university administrations are beginning to realize that draconian limitations on speech are not just constitutionally but also morally unacceptable at any institution that wishes to be taken seriously as a ‘marketplace of ideas.'”

So far, four lawsuits have been filed as part of FIRE’s Speech Codes Litigation Project, which aims to overturn unconstitutional public college and university speech codes across the country: the speech code at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania was defeated in court; Citrus College in California repealed all of its speech code policies almost immediately after the filing of a lawsuit; and Texas Tech’s speech code policies have now been struck down. Litigation in the fourth lawsuit, against SUNY Brockport in New York State, is ongoing.

Texas Tech’s restrictive speech policies spurred the growth of a student group formed to combat the climate of censorship on that campus—Students for Free Speech (SFS). SFS pressured the Texas Tech administration throughout the last academic year, organizing a campus-wide petition drive that attracted more than 900 student signatures in support of free speech. When administrators failed to respond, SFS members organized a creative protest event: a “funeral procession for free speech,” complete with eulogies, a clergyman, and a full-size wooden coffin.

“At Texas Tech, as on an increasing number of campuses, we see that students are leading the way in protecting basic American freedoms. With this victory, the continuation of the Speech Codes Litigation Project, and FIRE’s outreach to college presidents and administrative organizations, FIRE is making sure that when it comes to freedom, administrators catch up with their students,” concluded FIRE’s Lukianoff.

CONTACT:

David French, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; david.french@www.thefire-dev.wp.eresources.ws

Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; greg@www.thefire-dev.wp.eresources.ws

Hiram Sasser, Liberty Legal Institute: (972) 423-3131; libertylegal@libertylegal.org

Kevin Theriot, Alliance Defense Fund: (913) 829-7755

Schools: Texas Tech University Cases: Texas Tech University: Speech Code Litigation