N.Y. students sue university over its speech code

NEW YORK — Two students are hoping that a lawsuit against a public university in Brockport will force school administrators there to abolish a campus speech code the students claim infringes on their First Amendment rights.

Lawyers for students Patricia Simpson and Robert Wojick filed the lawsuit in June against the State University of New York at Brockport in a federal district court in Buffalo.

The case is the fourth and most recent lawsuit in a campaign by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education to abolish speech codes on public campuses across the country. FIRE is a nonprofit organization that advocates freedom of expression and academic freedom at colleges and universities.

The students argue that by having a speech code forbidding certain "offensive" expression on campus, administrators are forcing students to refrain from speaking out about controversial subjects.

The school's speech code specifically limits what students can do — from not allowing them to display editorial cartoons depicting religious figures in compromising situations to making jokes about a person's ethnicity.

Simpson and Wojick, who are members of the SUNY Brockport College Republicans and the school's political science club, claim their conservative political views increase the risk of punishment by the university because others could find their beliefs offensive.

In the lawsuit, the students cite two incidents when faculty members at the university became upset by political material their groups had been distributing on campus. Although the students received no punishment, they claim they are reluctant to distribute additional material in fear of being punished by the school.

Greg Lukianoff, director of legal and public advocacy for FIRE, said a ruling in favor of SUNY's speech code would be catastrophic for student journalists. 

"It would have devastating consequences for student [media]," he said. "If such an absurdly overbroad policy was upheld, it would harm the student media and everyone from artists to politicos to anyone trying to express even the most mild ideas."

Because the university is public, the lawsuit argues it is bound by state and federal constitutions to refrain from infringing on a student's right to free speech.

Representatives from the university president's office and the affirmative action office declined to comment about the school's policies. No court date has been set.

View FIRE's statement on and links to the speech code at the State University of New York at Brockport.

Fall 2004, New York, reports, State University of New York at Brockport