by Alexa Schwerha
Oklahoma State University (OSU) violated students’ First and Fourteenth amendment rights by enforcing policies which police speech concerning political and social issues, according to a lawsuit filed by legal group Speech First on Tuesday.
OSU enforces policies which “deter, suppress, and punish speech about political and social issues of the day,” according to the lawsuit filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma. It specifically challenges three issues Speech First alleges violates student speech rights: the harassment policy, the computer use policy and the Bias Incident Response system.
“This lawsuit not only holds OSU accountable for its unconstitutional policies, but it puts other universities on notice that students are no longer willing to tolerate being steamrolled by universities who use these intimidating investigatory measures to silence and suppress their speech and their thoughts,” Cherise Trump, Speech First executive director, told the Daily Caller News Foundation. “We filed because our student members at OSU are desperate for a campus environment that allows them to debate their peers without fear of retaliation from an administration bent on shutting down meaningful discourse.”
Speech First alleges that OSU’s harassment policy, which defines harassment as “verbal abuse, threats, intimidation, harassment, coercion, bullying” or conduct that could harm a student’s mental health, is vague and “can easily be applied to a wide swath of protected speech.” It also alleges that the computer use policy, which prohibits political campaigning, violates students’ rights by preventing them from “using their student email accounts for protected political speech.”
Speech First also tackles the school’s Bias Reporting System, which permits the campus community to report alleged biased incidents, because it allegedly “enforces speech codes through a reporting mechanism that solicits reports from students for their ‘bias’” and monitors student speech on and off campus as well and online.
“These policies not only force students to censor themselves when they interact with one another, but they also put students in the mindset that they should be offended by the opinions of others they disagree with, and that by committing the offense of being ‘bias,’ or what most of us may just call ‘being opinionated,’ warrants disciplinary action against you,” Trump said in the press release provided to the DCNF. “Universities should focus their efforts on fostering and promoting debate and open discourse, encouraging students to engage with ideas they find challenging. Oklahoma State’s policies have the opposite effect and violate their students’ First Amendment rights .”
Speech First asked the court to rule the policies violate the First and Fourteenth amendments and bar the university from further enforcing the policies on campus, according to the lawsuit.
“University officials learned about the complaint via the media and will be carefully reviewing. Oklahoma State University values and cherishes everyone’s right of free expression on campus as an essential pillar of democracy,” the university told the DCNF. “The free exchange of ideas and opinions is part of the educational experience and fosters excellent critical thinking insight. We respect different viewpoints and strive to promote healthy and considerate discussion. As a matter of course, it is inappropriate to comment on pending litigation.”
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Alexa Schwerha is a reporter at Daily Caller News Foundation.
Photo “Oklahoma State University Campus” by Eric E Johnson. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.