A major advance for academic freedom was won in Federal District Court in Georgia this week. In response to a lawsuit brought by two of its students, Georgia Institute of Technology has agreed to the terms of a court order revising a speech code which administrators had repeatedly invoked to censor conservative activism on campus.
The lawsuit was brought against Georgia Tech by two officers of the Georgia Tech College Republicans, Ruth Malhotra and Orit Sklar. Malhotra also serves as president of the Students for Academic Freedom chapter at the university.
During her sophomore year at Tech in 2004, Malhotra testified before the Georgia State Senate about facing discrimination and abuse in the classroom for her conservative political views and the need for an Academic Bill of Rights. One professor failed her after she attended a conservative public policy conference and openly belittled her political views in class.
“The speech code at Georgia Tech no longer exists,” declared David French, Director of the Center for Academic Freedom at the Alliance Defense Fund and lead counsel for the plaintiffs. “A court order was issued that codified an agreement between the parties to repeal Georgia tech’s speech code,” he explained.
Under the terms of the court order, the university is forbidden from altering the new policy during the next five years without judicial approval. If they violate the order, they will be held in contempt of court.
The university’s speech code banned “acts of intolerance,” including “any attempt to injure, harm, malign or harass a person because of race, religious belief, color, sexual/affectional orientation.” It also outlawed “denigrating written/verbal communication…directed toward an individual because of their characteristics or beliefs.” The revised policy omits these clauses.
According to plaintiff and Students for Academic Freedom leader Ruth Malhotra, the policy was used repeatedly by university officials to censor conservative activism on campus, including an “Affirmative Action Bake Sale” (protesting racial preferences) and protests of a campus performance of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues.
“The speech codes and other unconstitutional policies have repeatedly been used against myself and my organization, the College Republicans, in the past,” Malhotra told SAF. “We’ve done activism events or displays relating to many hot-button issues, expressing alternative points of views, and those were often condemned or censored… the Institute has condemned letters that we’ve written andstatements that we’ve made. We’ve simply responded when it’s appropriate to do so with our view on these public issues that are discussed on campus. In spite of countless meetings with various deans and administrators, we’ve had our speech censored, we’ve had our protests shut down by campus police, and we’ve repeatedly had Institute officials warn us away from speaking out on important public issues. The Director of Student Involvement, Danielle McDonald, told me that “College Republicans has become a joke on campus” and even the president of Georgia Tech, Wayne Clough, called me in for a meeting last November, and expressed frustration with our activities.”
Malhotra explained why she thought fighting Georgia Tech’s speech code was important enough to pursue through legal channels: “We refused to conform to their demands, we still wanted to exercise our rights. Our activities have always been peaceful and non-obscene, we simply have viewpoints that aren’t in line with those of the administration. My goal is not to attack individuals, but rather to debate ideas. It was nothing directed at a specific community of people or against an individual, we were just speaking out on these issues. But because our views are not in line with the views of the administration they tried to censor us and get us to change our activities,” she explained.
While Georgia Tech has been trying to downplay the impact of the policy revision, insisting that it applies only to student housing, Malhotra notes that its impact is much more far-reaching than might at first appear. “The university makes the speech code seem like it’s a very narrow thing that only affected campus housing, but it was used against us several times on activities that were not held in the housing. The policy is more comprehensive than Georgia Tech is making it seem,” she explained. “It is the duty of the Institute to protect expression, not to ensure that favored groups can speak while others cannot.”
Though the issue of the speech code has now been resolved, the lawsuit contains two additional charges which have yet to be ruled upon. “Under the case schedule we have until December 4th to finish discovery and by the end of the year we will have the case in front of a judge,” French said.
Commenting on the future impact of the legal victory, plaintiff’s lead counsel French told SAF, “I think that this should serve as an example to universities, not merely that they should change their policies, but that students are no longer going to stand by and let universities trample their free speech rights. This is one of a number of challenges that are pending and more will come.”
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