Conservative law firm threatens 12 colleges with free-speech lawsuits

Conservative law firm threatens 12 colleges with free-speech lawsuits
Iowa State University (Image: Google maps)

Yesterday, Southeastern Legal Foundation sent letters to 12 colleges and universities demanding that they rescind “unconstitutional” policies that violate students’ freedom of speech. Eight of the letters objected to bias reporting systems, which invite students to report on offensive speech by their peers. Two of the letters objected to restrictions on distribution of flyers and pamphlets, and the remaining two objected to restrictions on tabling by student groups.

The universities that received the letters were located across the country, including Clemson University; University of South Carolina; Southern Utah University; University of Maine at Orono; Santa Rosa Junior College; Iowa State University; Bowling Green State University; Illinois State University; Rutgers University; Miami University of Ohio; University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee; and Louisiana State University.

“College is meant to be the time and place for students to engage in civil discourse and prepare themselves for the real world,” said Kimberly Hermann, the general counsel of Southeastern Legal Foundation (SLF). “Instead of fostering discussion, colleges across our nation insist on silencing conservative and libertarian students they disagree with, doing a disservice to their students and our country.”

“Students have had enough. After the time lost due to the pandemic, they just want to engage in normal speech activities on campus again—something that is fundamental to the college experience,” CeCe O’Leary, director of the 1A Project, said in an SFL press release. “But colleges are silencing them once again, this time through policies that are often buried on their websites.”

A letter was sent to Southern Utah University about its bias reporting system. Bias is defined by SUU’s policy as, “speech, conduct, or some other form of expression or action that is motivated wholly or in part by prejudice or bias.” “SLF urges the University to remove the bias reporting system altogether from campus…[b]ut at a minimum, the University must remove vague language like “demean,” “embarrass,” and “stereotype” from its definition of bias,” SLF’s demand letter stated. “It must clarify that speech cannot be investigated or punished through reporting forms, no matter how offensive students perceive the speech to be.”

SUU says any speech designed to “discriminate, demean, embarrass, assign stereotype[s], harass, or exclude” due to “race, color, ethnicity, national origin, language, sex, gender, gender identity, or expression, sexual orientation, size, disability, age, veteran status, or religion” is reason enough to file a report for “hate speech” or bias. SUU also provides an anonymous form that can be filled out if someone wants to fling accusations anonymously.

“We are concerned that the reporting system infringes on students’ First Amendment rights because it allows officials to discriminate against the content and viewpoint of speech,” SLF stated. “As such, we demand that the University revise this unconstitutional policy.”

SLF also objected to Clemson University’s bias reporting system, arguing the policy is “unconstitutionally vague and overbroad.”

“We are concerned that the policies infringe on students’ First Amendment rights because they are unconstitutionally vague and overbroad,”SLF writes. SLF said systems like Clemson’s fail to respect due process and provide fair notice, and will chill students’ freedom of speech and expression on campus. “The University must clarify that offensive speech and hate speech are protected by the Constitution and will not be investigated or punished throughout its anti-harassment policies, reporting form, and related procedures.” SLF also asked Clemson to remove language from its policy that would compel students to agree or disagree with a particular viewpoint to avoid punishment.

SLF’s letter to Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC) objected to restrictions on student funding by awarding funding based on student groups’ viewpoints, stating “that the [Inter Club Council Grant Application] infringes on students’ First Amendment rights… [and] [s]uch unfettered discretion is a prior restraint, opens the door to discrimination, and unconstitutionally chills freedom of expression. As such, we demand that the University revise this unconstitutional policy.” SLF determined this prior restraint violates students’ First Amendment rights and should be removed from the grant application.

SLF’s demand letter to Iowa State University (ISU) objected to a university policy that forbids students to table for organizations or causes on campus without the explicit permission of ISU, despite the school’s status as a public university. “We are concerned that the policy infringes on students’ First Amendment rights because it is an unreasonable restriction on the time, place, and manner of speech, and it imposes a prior restraint on freedom of expression,” the letter reads. ISU requires students to fill out a form to use “booth or tabling space,” however, “table and booth locations are only available to recognized student organizations.” Even student groups officially recognized by the school are only allowed to reserve space for tabling 8 times per semester. SLF says that under the university’s tabling policy “active student organizations are silenced” after they have filled their allotted 8 reservations. “This restriction goes beyond a reasonable time, place, and manner restriction because it is not narrowly tailored to achieve a significant interest, and it fails to provide alternative channels for communication,” the letter reads.

SLF objected to restrictions on signs and banners at Illinois State University (ISU). “It is the duty of college officials to protect and defend the voices of every student on campus,” the letter reads. “But through this facilities use policy, officials are emboldened to discriminate against students based on the content of their speech and the views they express.” Under the “General University Facility and Space Use Policy,” students are limited in how they can promote events, groups, or causes on campus. “All temporary signage and displays (including banners and exterior temporary signs) must conform to University standards for type of sign structure, locations, method of messaging, and message content. These signs or displays require prior approval from University Marketing and Communications (UMC) and/or Facilities Management,” the policy reads. The policy does not indicate what messages will or will not be approved, giving college officials discretion to play favorites based on political or social viewpoint. In its demand letter, SLF states “[t]he University can only impose reasonable, content-neutral restrictions on the time, place, and manner of speech, including limits on flyer size, weight, height, or material. The University must therefore revise its facilities use policy to eliminate “message content” as a condition for approval.”

SLF objected to a tabling policy at Miami University of Ohio. It requires that student organizations get advance permission to use any public space on university property before tabling. SLF says the policy violates student First Amendment rights on campus.

SLY says the “facilities use policies undermine this bedrock principle and raise serious First Amendment concerns because they are vague and impose unreasonable restrictions on the time, place, and manner of speech on campus.”

Under Miami University’s “Use of University Property” policy, “[a]ny Student Organization seeking to use University Property must make a reservation through the appropriate Space Scheduler.”

SLF demands that the University “clarify that it will not assess content or viewpoint when approving a reservation, but that it will only grant or deny a request based on availability.”

SLF also says that the university must “explain in its Use of University Property policy, its On-Campus Events policy, and its Public Speaking, Leaflet Distribution, and Demonstrations policy that students are allowed to spontaneously gather at any time to hand out flyers and otherwise engage in speech activities.”

LU Staff

LU Staff

Promoting and defending liberty, as defined by the nation’s founders, requires both facts and philosophical thought, transcending all elements of our culture, from partisan politics to social issues, the workings of government, and entertainment and off-duty interests. Liberty Unyielding is committed to bringing together voices that will fuel the flame of liberty, with a dialogue that is lively and informative.


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