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OU administrators sued over freedom of speech
University responds: admins never said not to wear shirts
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A member of Ohio University's Students Defending Students is taking his case to a higher court.
Isaac Smith, a senior studying political science and a member of SDS, filed suit against three OU administrators in the U.S District Court for the Southern District of Ohio for OU's overly broad speech code.
Administrators told SDS members not to wear the organization's t-shirts with the phrase "We get you off for free," claiming the shirts violate the university's Student Code of Conduct forbidding any "act that degrades, demeans or disgraces" another student.
But OU is saying administrators never told students to not wear the shirts, they only advised against it, said Katie Quaranta, an OU spokeswoman.
"As educators, we respect freedom of speech and expression as core values at Ohio University. We also believe that an important part of the educational process is to hold discussions and present other points of view," Quaranta wrote in an email. "Such a discussion occurred when administrators suggested to the student organization that the t-shirts might inhibit their efforts to serve other students. University administrators were exercising their responsibilities as educators when they pointed out to the student organization how their actions might be viewed by others."
Smith's suit is against OU President Roderick McDavis, Dean of Students Jenny Hall-Jones and Director of the Office of Community Standards and Student Responsbility Martha Compton. Hall-Jones and Compton oversee the university's student code of conduct.
Smith will challenge three sections of the Student Code of Conduct with the assistance of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and Washington-based law firm Davis Wright Tremaine in the Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project, a national effort to stop public college and universities' unconstitutional campus speech codes.
"I started paying attention to what the university does and what its administrators say, and I realized that we live in a climate that's very unfriendly for expressing a contrary opinion," Smith said at a press conference for at the National Press Club in Washington.
Smith will be represented in federal court by Davis Wright Tremaine, a law firm based in Washington.
He will challenge sections of the Student Code of Conduct prohibiting "any act which demeans, degrades, disgraces any person;" prohibiting "taking any reckless, but not accidental, action from which mental or bodily harm could result to another person;" and requiring students to obey any "legitimate directive" by a university official.
The case is one of the first four cases launched under the Litigation Project, which includes similar suits against Iowa State University, Chicago State University and Citrus College, all launched Tuesday.
"I'm firm in my choice to move forward to change things at my school, but I know that there are hundreds of other schools with speech policies just as restrictive as the one at mine, where students may be hestitant to stand up for their rights," Smith said.