This Month in FIRE History: Lawsuit Challenges Speech Code and "Free Speech Gazebo" at Texas Tech
June 30, 2009
One of the most important lawsuits ever coordinated by FIRE's Speech Code Litigation Project was filed six years ago this June against Texas Tech University. The lawsuit challenged the university's policies, which were "overbroad, vague, involve[d] content-based and viewpoint discrimination, and unconstitutionally restrict[ed] student speech." Specifically, it challenged Texas Tech's unconstitutional speech code and free speech zone.
Texas Tech's speech code banned "communications [that] humiliate any person." The university's examples of such punishable expression included "sexual innuendoes," "referring to an adult as 'girl,' 'boy,' or 'honey,'" or "sexual stories."
As bad as the speech code was, Texas Tech cemented its infamous place in FIRE's history with its free speech gazebo, seen here:
This 20 foot wide area was, in 2003, the only place where the 28,000 students were able to exercise what the university was willing to recognize as free speech.
FIRE first learned of Texas Tech's speech code from Trevor Smith, a member of Students for Social Justice. Several months before, the university attempted to enforce its unconstitutional policies against his group, which had planned a protest against the Bush administration's policies towards Iraq. The university told the group that it would be restricted to the free speech gazebo. After FIRE intervened, Students for Social Justice held their planned protest outside of the gazebo without interference from the administration.
Though Texas Tech allowed the protest and the school subsequently greatly expanded the campus "free speech area" beyond the gazebo, the school refused to change the unconstitutional policies until they were struck down by a federal judge in September of 2004. Even now, though it has removed the offending policies from its handbook, Texas Tech still maintains policies which clearly and substantially restrict speech.
As Greg Lukianoff said at the time, "The court decision against Texas Tech is cause for all friends of liberty to celebrate. FIRE's speech code lawsuits are winning everywhere they are filed and university administrations are beginning to realize that draconian limitations on speech are not just constitutionally but also morally unacceptable at any institution that wishes to be taken seriously as a 'marketplace of ideas.'"
FIRE's Legal Network has also helped plaintiffs take Shippensburg University, Citrus College, the State University of New York College at Brockport, San Francisco State University, and Temple University to court, and all have either had their policies declared unconstitutional or settled the lawsuit by rescinding the policies themselves.