ACLU Sues California University for Suppressing Student's Political Expression

March 11, 1999 12:00 am

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Thursday, March 11, 1999

SAN DIEGO–The ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties filed suit in federal court today against the University of California at San Diego for punishing a student who refused to remove a political sign containing a vulgar four-letter word from the window of his dormitory room.

Ryan Benjamin Shapiro, a first year student and National Merit Scholar, was ordered by school officials to perform three hours of community service for refusing to comply with a staff request to remove the sign.

In legal papers, the ACLU said that the university’s policies violate First Amendment free speech protections by being vague and subjective, failing to treat all verbal harassment under the same standard, and giving University administrators unbridled ability to suppress political viewpoints or word choices they do not like.

Shapiro placed the hand-made sign in his window last November after reading in the London Times about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s involvement with biological weapons research and the arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet for crimes against humanity. The sign said, “Fuck Netanyahu and Pinochet.”

Shapiro said he used provocative wording to get people’s attention and to provoke debate on human rights and morality. After refusing to take the sign down, Shapiro was charged with violating University regulations on posting notices, which prohibit “offensive” materials and the use of “fighting words.”

“The university cannot use a policy created to prevent hate speech as a cover for sanitizing all campus conversation,” said Guylyn Cummins, theACLU volunteer attorney representing Shapiro. “Nor can they censor a student’s political views or vocabulary because they might offend an administrator. A university campus should be a forum for vigorous discourse, not a center of censorship.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that university officials may not censor student political expression on the basis that, in their view, it exceeds the bounds of good taste. The Court has also ruled that “fighting words” lose the protection of the First Amendment only when they are directed at an individual in a face-to-face confrontation in a way likely to incite immediate violent reaction.

But applying a fighting words policy to a written political statement about two politicians who are thousands of miles away is not only unconstitutional, but absurd, the ACLU said.

The university’s fighting words policy was designed primarily to address harassment of students based on personal characteristics such as race or sexual orientation; however, it also creates the presumption that certain words, regardless of context, are fighting words as defined by the Supreme Court. However other verbal harassment based on personal characteristics is not given automatic “fighting words” status. This type of viewpoint discrimination by a public entity also violates the First Amendment, the ACLU said.

“Nothing in this lawsuit suggests that universities cannot punish hate speech that creates a hostile and intimidating educational environment.” said ACLU Executive Director Linda Hills. “However, as this case demonstrates, the university’s policy is so lacking in focus and even-handedness that it can be used to inhibit political speech protected by the First Amendment.”

The ACLU has requested that the University delay Shapiro’s punishment until after the constitutional issues raised in its lawsuit have been reviewed by the court. If the University does not comply with this request, the ACLU said it will seek a Temporary Restraining Order early next week.

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