An Ohio University student is suing the school president and two other top administrators who he says told his student group to stop wearing T-shirts with a sexually suggestive double-entendre printed on the back.
Isaac Smith, a leader of the campus group Students Defending Students, filed the lawsuit yesterday in federal court in Columbus, saying that his constitutional right to free speech had been violated. His group offers free help to students who face charges under the campus disciplinary system in Athens.
The defendants are Roderick J. McDavis, the university president; Jenny Hall-Jones, the dean of students; and Martha Compton, director of the Office of Community Standards, which enforces the student code of conduct.
It demands a permanent injunction on parts of the campus code, plus attorney fees and monetary damages “to be determined by the court.”
“We want to be clear that Ohio University administrators never directed the students or the student organization to not wear the T-shirts mentioned in the lawsuit, and no student misconduct action was ever threatened or taken,” Ohio U. spokeswoman Katie Quaranta said in an email.
Instead, she wrote, administrators engaged Smith and others in a discussion about how the shirts might “inhibit their efforts to serve other students.”
She concluded: “We believe our conversations represented civility in disagreement and that the university administrators acted properly as responsible educators in their handling of this situation.”
Smith had help from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a national nonprofit group that promotes free speech on college campuses. The suit is one of four that the group helped file yesterday to send a message about campus speech codes that, the group says, unfairly limit students.
“FIRE is launching a litigation campaign to change the incentives for schools who believe it’s cost-free to have unconstitutional speech codes on campus,” said Robert Shibley, the group’s senior vice president.
Other lawsuits were filed against Chicago State University, Iowa State University and Citrus College, near Los Angeles. The complaints vary widely.
“Those four were chosen because of the severity of their speech codes and also because they had students who wanted to challenge them,” Shibley said. The suits are a new step for the group, which typically has avoided legal action.
The case filed by Smith, 22, of Athens, stems from a conflict at a student-involvement fair in August. Smith and two other students from his group wore the shirts, which read “We get you off for free,” while recruiting students on the college green.
“The slogan we had on the shirt was actually the slogan that Students Defending Students started when it was founded back in 1976,” Smith said Tuesday. “It was a throwback slogan that we were bringing back.”
At the fair, Smith tweeted a message to advertise the event, with a photo of the shirt.
Within a few minutes, Compton retweeted Smith’s original message— without the photo — and sent it to Hall-Jones, who was at the event. Hall-Jones approached the group and said, “I don’t want to see you wearing that T-shirt again,” according to the suit, which added that she said they were unprofessional.
Later, at a March meeting between the student group and the Office of Community Standards, Compton said that the shirts objectified women, were sexually inappropriate and “encouraging prostitution,” the suit said.
“I thought it was absurd,” Smith said. “Usually in prostitution there is a monetary exchange, not the whole ‘for free’ thing.”
Students stopped wearing the shirts after the August fair, fearing discipline under a school rule against demeaning, denigrating or disgracing others, and another rule requiring students to follow direct orders from campus officials.
In the lawsuit, attorneys for Smith wrote that the university curtailed expression by the students. The policy too broadly restricts speech, they wrote.
“Under this subjective, unbounded policy, a debate about same-sex marriage, immigration policy, philosophy or feminism could easily constitute grounds for punishment,” according to the 20-page lawsuit.
By Collin Binkley - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)
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