PHILADELPHIA A civil liberties watchdog group has filed a lawsuit against Shippensburg University, alleging that the south-central Pennsylvania school’s speech policies are among the most unconstitutionally restrictive in the nation.
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education filed the lawsuit April 22 in U.S. District Court in Harrisburg, said Thor Halvorssen, the group’s chief executive officer. The Philadelphia-based nonprofit, which focuses on civil liberties issues on college campuses, said the suit was the first of many it would file across the country.
“Too many colleges and universities attempt to outlaw free speech and expression that does not conform to a specific orthodoxy, and we are challenging that,” he said. “We’ve done research at hundreds of universities and we’re starting with Shippensburg because their speech codes are the worst.”
The complaint cites what it alleges is unconstitutionally vague or overly broad language in the schools’ catalog and student handbook, including admonishments regarding “unconscious attitudes toward individuals which surface through the use of discriminatory semantics,” as well as barring “presumptive statements” and conduct or “attitude” that “annoys” another person or group.
“Does that mean that if I’m a student, I can’t wear a T-shirt that might annoy someone, or I can’t have an attitude that might be offensive to someone?” Halvorssen said.
Named as defendants are the university and its president, Anthony F. Ceddia. The plaintiffs, named John Doe and Jane Doe in the suit, are political science majors and members of campus political organizations who find that the speech codes “have a chilling effect on plaintiffs’ rights to freely and openly engage in appropriate discussions of their theories, ideas and political and-or religious beliefs,” the complaint states.
“As an institution of higher education we encourage and promote free speech among and between individuals and organizations,” Shippensburg said in a written statement in response to the lawsuit.
“The university is also committed to the principle that this discussion be conducted appropriately. We do have expectations that our students will conduct themselves in a civil manner that allows them to express their opinions without interfering with the rights of others,” the statement said.
The complaint also alleges that the university supplemented its speech policy in March with a stipulation that limits demonstrations, rallies and all “collective opinions outside the classroom” to certain spaces on campus.
“With this Orwellian termed ‘free-speech zone’ policy, now they’re trying to censor not only what you say on campus but where you say it,” Halvorssen said.
The plaintiffs want the court to render the speech code and speech zones invalid and to reward unspecified monetary damages.
Starting in the late 1980s and early 1990s, schools began to institute codes prohibiting certain forms of offensive speech, according to the California-based Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Since then, thousands of colleges and universities across the country have adopted speech codes, also sometimes called tolerance statements or diversity codes, Halvorssen said.
FIRE is working with an “ideologically diverse” group of public interest law firms and litigation groups on a series of pending lawsuits against colleges and universities nationwide, Halvorssen said.
“We plan to file lawsuits in every (federal) circuit court and every district court in the country over the next 12 months,” Halvorssen said. He declined to name the schools being targeted in future suits but said there would be at least four more within the next six months.
Shippensburg University is one of Pennsylvania’s 14 state-owned universities, with about 6,200 undergraduates. It is located about 35 miles southwest of Harrisburg.