Texas Tech sued over free speech policies

By Betsey Blaney


Thursday, June 12, 2003

LUBBOCK, Texas Texas Tech University's free speech policy violates students' constitutional rights by restricting where they may speak and requiring permission to speak elsewhere, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday by two civil liberties groups.

The suit claims the one location that Tech designates as a free-speech zone a 20-foot wide gazebo that can hold about 40 people and a policy that requires a permit for speech at other campus locations are restrictive and violate students' First and Fourteenth Amendments.

The restrictions are on their face "overbroad, involve content-based and viewpoint discrimination and unconstitutionally restrict student speech," according to the suit filed by Liberty Legal Institute of Plano and the Alliance Defense Fund of Scottsdale, Ariz.

The suit was filed in Lubbock federal court in cooperation with The Foundation for Individual Rights, a Philadelphia group that targets higher education institutions' speech policies nationwide they allege are unconstitutional.

"They are using a machete rather than a surgeon's scalpel," said Kevin Theriot, an attorney with the Arizona group. "When it comes to free speech you have to be very precise in the way you regulate."

Pat Campbell, vice chancellor and general counsel at Tech, said Tech got a letter from the foundation Feb. 6 that criticized the university's free speech zones. Within four days, a committee met to begin looking at expanding the number of free-speech locations on campus to five. On March 22, school officials approved adding the five zones to the university's student handbook for the 2003-04 year.

"We beat them to the punch," Campbell said. "We had done what they had asked us to do and started the ball rolling four days after the (February) letter."

Free-speech zones, created in the 1960s in an era of massive student activism, began being actively enforced on campuses in the 1980s as a means to permit expression without disrupting learning. In recent years, however, they have come under increasing attack with students and activists saying that to limit speech to a few designated areas is unconstitutional because it effectively bans speech everywhere else.

The suit names as defendants Donald Haragan, Tech's interim president; Chancellor David R. Smith; the university's nine regents; Michael Shonrock, the vice president for student affairs; and Mary Donahue, assistant director of the Center for Campus Life.

The suit seeks to have the speech zone declared unconstitutional.

The plaintiff in the suit, Jason Roberts, is a Tech third-year law school student who in May applied for a permit to speak about his view that "homosexuality is a sinful, immoral and unhealthy lifestyle," according to the suit. He wanted to give his speech at other than the gazebo and also sought to distribute a leaflet citing scripture that is the basis of his belief, the suit claims.

His request was denied and Roberts was informed in a letter that his "request is the expression of a personal belief and thus, is something more appropriate for the free speech area which is the gazebo area," the suit states.

"The Tech speech codes are some of the most restrictive in the nation," said Kelly Shackelford of the Plano group. "These codes are egregious examples of political correctness run amok and must be changed."

Roberts, of San Antonio, appealed and was eventually given permission to speak but at a different location than originally requested.

The suit also alleges that the school's speech code is restrictive. It prohibits speech that "intimidates" or "humiliates" but does not include rules or regulations in school publications to guide university officials in determining whether a student's speech does either.

"That is a concern that is becoming nationwide," Theriot said.

The action against Tech is the third case the Philadelphia foundation has been involved with in the past two months. Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania was sued in April over a diversity policy.

The other, Citrus College in California, was sued in May but settled last week. A student there claimed the college refused to let him conduct a "pro-America rally" outside of designated free-speech zones unless he did so as part of a registered club.

The Phoenix group also sued the University of Houston, where on Wednesday officials said they will eliminate some restrictions on campus speech and pay $93,000 in attorneys' fees to settle an anti-abortion student group's lawsuit. The school will amend its free speech policy by June 30.

"Universities are not black holes where only orthodox views are allowed to shine," Benjamin Bull, an attorney representing the Pro-Life Cougars student group who works for the Alliance Defense Fund, told the Houston Chronicle for Thursday editions. "Students are entitled to learn the truth about all difficult issues, including abortion."

A lawsuit filed against the University of Texas at Austin is ongoing.

Tech graduate student Trevor Smith said he faced similar problems when he wanted to organize anti-war rallies on campus before and after the recent war in Iraq. He called the university's policy the "most backward" he's ever seen.

"The policy boils down to this: be involved, be interested but only in the gazebo," Smith said. "We value you're involvement enough to give you the gazebo. That's just ludicrous."