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 yesterday by two civil liberties groups.
The lawsuit 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 Amendment rights.
The restrictions on their face are "overbroad, involve content-based and viewpoint discrimination and unconstitutionally restrict student speech," according to the lawsuit filed by Liberty Legal Institute of Plano and the Alliance Defense Fund of Scottsdale, Ariz.
The lawsuit 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 that the group alleges 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 the university 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, the zones have come under increasing attack, with students and activists saying that limiting speech to a few designated areas is unconstitutional because it effectively bans speech everywhere else.
The lawsuit 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.
It seeks to have the speech zone declared unconstitutional.
The plaintiff, 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 lawsuit. He wanted to give his speech at a location other than the gazebo and also sought to distribute a leaflet citing Scripture that is the basis of his belief, the lawsuit said.
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 lawsuit states.
The lawsuit also alleges 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 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 requested.
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 June 11 officials said they would eliminate some restrictions on campus speech and pay $93,000 in attorneys' fees to settle an anti-abortion student group's lawsuit. The school is to amend its free-speech policy by June 30.
"Universities are not black holes where only orthodox views are allowed to shine," said Benjamin Bull, an attorney representing the Pro-Life Cougars student group who works for the Alliance Defense Fund.
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.