Victory for Free Speech on Campus: Mississippi College Reverses Punishment of Student for Swearing Outside of Class
July 28, 2010
Four months after he was threatened with "detention" and then forced to endure a disciplinary process that put his and his family's livelihoods at risk, Isaac Rosenbloom is again able to pursue advanced training as a paramedic at Mississippi's Hinds Community College (HCC). HCC has finally reversed his punishment for swearing a single time outside of class. Rosenbloom, who supports his wife and two young children as an emergency medical technician, was barred from one of his classes and denied financial aid before FIRE was able to get his case resolved.
Rosenbloom's ordeal began on March 29, 2010, when professor Barbara Pyle and a few students stayed after class to discuss the students' grades. At one point, in the doorway of the room, Rosenbloom said to a fellow student that his grade was "going to f--- up my entire GPA."
According to Rosenbloom's account in a recording of his April 6 hearing, Pyle began to yell and told him that his language was unacceptable and that she was giving him "detention." Rosenbloom replied, accurately, that detention was not a punishment at HCC. Pyle then told him that she was sending him to the dean. She submitted a disciplinary complaint against Rosenbloom, stating that "this language was not to be tolerated [and] he could not say that under any circumstances [including in] the presence of the other students."
HCC found Rosenbloom guilty of "flagrant disrespect" and issued him twelve demerits—just three short of suspension. He also was involuntarily withdrawn from Pyle's course, and a copy of the decision was placed in Rosenbloom's student file. As a result, Rosenbloom lost his Pell grant, effectively ending his academic and professional career. Rosenbloom unsuccessfully appealed the decision twice.
FIRE wrote HCC President Clyde Muse on April 27, pointing out not only that HCC's policy is unconstitutional but also that it was applied unconstitutionally to punish Rosenbloom for his protected speech outside of class. In contravention of the First Amendment, HCC bans "public profanity, cursing and vulgarity," assessing a fine of $25 for the first offense, $50 plus ten to fifteen demerits for the second offense, and suspension for the third offense.
After Muse failed to respond to FIRE, FIRE obtained the assistance of attorneys Robert B. McDuff and Sibyl Byrd, who took up Rosenbloom's case and secured a settlement in his favor. HCC has removed the finding and demerits from Rosenbloom's record and has restored his financial aid. McDuff is a civil rights and criminal defense attorney practicing in Jackson.
Will Creeley notes in today's press release that "Hinds Community College isn't some Victorian finishing school—it's a public institution bound by the First Amendment." Even after doing right by Rosenbloom in the face of possible litigation, however, HCC's speech code remains stuck in the days of Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens and in defiance of the First Amendment. It is only a matter of time before another student will be unjustly punished and HCC won't be able to head off an embarrassing court battle—one that will be much costlier than the $25 it collects from violators of its prohibition against "vulgarity." Will HCC learn its lesson in time?
FIRE is heartened that Rosenbloom now can continue his training and earn a better life for himself and his family. We will be watching Hinds Community College and urging it to reform its unconstitutional policy.