College sued over free speech rules

Associated Press
April 25, 2003

PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania (AP) -- A civil liberties group has filed suit against Shippensburg University, saying the state school's policy on speech is among the most unconstitutionally restrictive in the nation.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education filed the lawsuit Tuesday in federal court, said Thor Halvorssen, the group's chief executive. The nonprofit group, 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," he said.

The complaint cites what it alleges is unconstitutionally vague or overly broad language in the schools' racism and cultural diversity policy, which cautions among other things against "unconscious attitudes toward individuals which surface through the use of discriminatory semantics."

The policy also warns against use of "presumptive statements" and conduct or "attitude" that "annoys" another person or group.

The university said it encourages free speech, but discussions should 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 plaintiffs are political science majors and members of campus political organizations who feel the policies "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 plaintiffs want the court to render the speech code invalid and to reward unspecified damages.

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