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Monday, February 08, 2021

Campus speech (Updated)

This story--a pharmacy grad student suing University of Tennessee after it voted to expel her over sexually suggestive and vulgar, but unquestionably protected, social-media posts (the expulsion was rescinded by the dean)--captures everything that is problematic and misunderstood about attempts to regulate speech on campus.

• The university went after an African-American woman who graduated from University of Chicago and, in her words, "dominated her class," asked a lot of questions, and was a target of colleague complaints on social media. Just as Wisconsin prosecuted an assault by African-Americans against a white victim under its hate-crimes law. Just saying.

• An expert on higher-education law says, "'If someone is shouting in a classroom, you have the right to control the time, place and manner,' he said. 'When they are shouting on Twitter, is it their space or yours?'" This is stupid. First, the comparison is not between Twitter and the classroom; no one believes the classroom is a speech zone or anything other than the professor's space, and a student is punished regardless of what they shout. The comparison is between Twitter and the public spaces on campus opened up for speech; they are the students' spaces, shouting is permitted, and a public university cannot punish some shouting but not other shouting.

Plus, the woman was not shouting. She was posing for non-naked pictures and reciting lyrics. That becomes "shouting" only if you object to the content.

• The story kind of goes off the rails with a detour into Tinker and the Mahanoy case ("Fuck cheer") that SCOTUS will hear later this term. The rules for speech in secondary schools do not apply to college students on college campuses--adults, living in a self-contained "city" that is more than classrooms. There is a reason universities lose most of these speech-code cases, while high schools tend to win them. Discussing both in the same article confuses that issue.

• I am curious about the student's lawsuit. She was not expelled, so she cannot get an injunction for reinstatement or damages from her expulsion. Essentially, she is challenging the investigation that caused her emotional discomfort and distraction and that forced her to hire an attorney. Can a student recover when a public university takes steps to punish on constitutionally violative grounds, even if it does not complete the punishment? Does the university have any power to look into the issues to see if they are protected? Or must the university get one look, say obviously protected, and stop in its tracks? How far can an inquiry go before it becomes a violation? Interesting theory at work.

By the way, UT has been embroiled in a multi-year dispute over whether students can hold an annual "safe sex week." So we are not exactly enrolled in a bastion of free expression and academic freedom.

Update: Here is the Complaint; it makes a bit more sense. The school sought to sanction the woman for violating "professionalism standards" built into the school's academic policies, although stated nowhere in writing. That is a cute attempt at a work-around: "You are not violating public-school policies, but standards of the profession into which you are about to enter." She seeks an injunction prohibiting future enforcement of these unknown, vague, and overbroad "professionalism policies," claiming that she is self-censoring and has reason to fear future enforcement while she remains in school; that makes sense. I remain unsold on the damages theory. She was subject to an intermediate sanction for prior speech--she was made to write a letter about why her speech was bad and then self-censored in the lead-up to the more recent enforcement effort--that may warrant damage. But she seems to be claiming damages for the investigation and proposed expulsion (overruled by the dean) under an invalid standard. As stated above, I am trying to find a theory or limiting principle for how long an investigation can go before it becomes a First Amendment violation. At the very least, it seems to run headlong into qualified immunity and it not being clearly established that the policy is vague.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on February 8, 2021 at 10:32 AM in Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink

Comments

Here's a fourth circuit case analyzing the issue of when an investigation becomes a 1A violation: https://www.ca4.uscourts.gov/opinions/171853.P.pdf

Posted by: luke | Feb 8, 2021 11:49:55 AM

Here is another story about the University of Tennessee. https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/jimmy-galligan-moral-monster-racism-mimi-stokes/ also:https://reason.com/2020/12/28/new-york-times-racial-slur-teen-jimmy-galligan-mimi-groves/

Posted by: Anon | Feb 5, 2021 1:04:40 PM

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