Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit on Thursday against a California State University – Fresno professor for violating student’s free speech rights on campus.
Students exercising their free speech
On May 2, 2017, after obtaining approval from both school administrators and a local Student Involvement organization, Fresno State Students for Life, a pro-life student organization, began writing chalk messages on Fresno University campus sidewalks. The messages were intended for new parents and to provide information and support to young women struggling with crisis pregnancies.
While the group was involved with their activity, Bernadette Tasy, the president of the organization, noticed several students scuffing out the messages with their shoes. When she confronted the students, they responded, “We have a teacher [Thatcher] that’s telling us to get rid of it.”
Professor claims, “College campuses are not free-speech areas!”
A short time later, Dr. Gregory Thatcher, a public health professor at the University, approached the group and berated them for their activity, claiming, “College campuses are not free-speech areas!” Thatcher then demanded the student limit their activity to a “free speech zone” (a policy that the University itself discontinued three years ago).
When informed that the group had obtained permission from the university for their activity, Thatcher then angrily began scuffing out the chalk messages with his own shoe claiming, “You have permission to put it down… I have permission to get rid of it.” The altercation was caught on video.
Contrary to Professor Thatcher’s assertion, exercising one’s free speech rights does not extend to censoring another’s free speech. Free speech is not a principal of “I get to voice my views, but you don’t”.
According to a statement released by the University, the students had permission to engage in their free speech activities. The University’s statement also makes it clear that Thatcher’s claims that he had permission to erase the student’s messages was not true.
“No students should have to endure this kind of intimidation and harassment for simply expressing their views.” – Students for Life of America President Kristan Hawkins
“Fresno State Students for Life received full permission to chalk pro-life messages near the library,” Students for Life of America President Kristan Hawkins explained. “Rather than countering with his own message, Dr. Thatcher took the illegal approach of censoring speech and inciting students to help.” Hawkins added, “No students should have to endure this kind of intimidation and harassment for simply expressing their views.”
It its lawsuit, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) alleges the professor violated the student’s freedom of speech through censorship, harassment, intimidation, and by recruiting others to do the same.
ADF Senior Counsel Casey Mattox said university staff should be an example of free speech, not its attacker. “It’s important that university professors model the First Amendment values they are supposed to be teaching to students.”
ADF Legal Counsel Travis Barham agrees, “No university professor has the authority to… silence any student speech he happens to find objectionable.” Barham added, “Professors have an obligation to respect students’ free speech rights. The professor’s actions here represent a flagrant violation of the First Amendment.”
The free speech zone concept
Free speech zones (also known as “First Amendment zones”, “free speech cages”, and “protest zones”) are areas set aside in public areas for the purpose of political protesting, religious expression, and other forms of free speech. Free speech zones are based on the idea that, while the time, place, and manner of speech may be regulated, the content of that speech may not.
In 1968, the Supreme Court ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District that non-disruptive speech is permitted in all public schools. While the ruling does not apply to private universities, public universities such as California State University – Fresno are therefore not permitted to restrict non-distruptive speech.
“According to the opinion of the court, campus areas such as parks, sidewalks, streets and other areas are designated as public forums, regardless of whether the university has chosen to officially designate the areas as such.” – U.S. District Court Judge Sam Cummings, 2004
In September 2004, U.S. District Court Judge Sam Cummings expanded on that earlier ruling, striking down the restrictive free speech zone policy at Texas Tech University. The court ruled, “According to the opinion of the court, campus areas such as parks, sidewalks, streets and other areas are designated as public forums, regardless of whether the university has chosen to officially designate the areas as such.” That court declared Texas Tech University’s policy to be unconstitutional to the extent that it regulated the content of student speech in areas of the campus that are de-facto public forums.
Fresno University had previously designated specific areas on campus as “free-speech zones”, however, the university rescinded the policy three years ago. Under current university policy, there are no designated “free speech zones”, as the university now considers the entire campus open for free speech activities. Professor Thatcher’s actions therefore not only violated the student’s freedom of speech, they violated current university policy.
As of March 2017, four states have laws prohibiting public colleges and universities from implementing restrictive “free speech zones” – Virginia, Missouri, Arizona, and Kentucky.