Ceramics professor didn’t retaliate, just made ‘vigorous attempts to persuade’
A public college in Texas is changing its policies on free expression to settle a lawsuit by a student whose pro-gun message it squelched more than a year ago.
Blinn College will also pay $50,000 in damages and legal fees to Nicole Sanders, who was recruiting for her nascent Young Americans for Liberty chapter with signs that read “Defend Gun Rights on Campus” and “LOL” featuring the Barack Obama campaign logo.
Sanders and another activist were sign-waving and collecting names when campus officials told them they needed “special permission” to recruit for the club and questioned whether they could even promote a pro-gun message on campus.
It’s the “ninth consecutive victory” for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s Stand Up for Speech Litigation Project, which sues colleges that infringe on the First Amendment rights of students and faculty, FIRE said in a release Wednesday. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Austin.
Ceramics professor Doug Peck, whom Sanders accused of trying to intimidate her against filing a lawsuit against Blinn and starting the Young Americans for Liberty chapter, was dropped from the litigation after he filed a motion to dismiss.
Aside from interim President Ana Guzman, who has since been replaced by President Mary Hensley, Peck is the only defendant from the original suit not named in the settlement.
Training and ‘reasonable diligence’
In return for not admitting liability, the board of trustees at Blinn College agreed to change two policies under which it faulted Sanders: a “student expression” policy that requires students to get permission from officials before distributing material on campus, and a “facilities” policy that requires student organizations to ask for permission a month ahead and “gain approval from four administrators for any on- or off-campus expressive activity,” FIRE said.
That facilities policy limited no-permission expressive activities to a single free speech zone the size of a parking space, as FIRE has described it. Those new policies will be announced within 10 days on Blinn’s campus news page, the settlement agreement reads.
— Blinn College (@BlinnCollege) April 28, 2016
The agreement also pledges Blinn to revise its “Administrative Procedure for Expressive Activities on Campus.” It says all changes will be implemented within 30 days and will post the new policies on its student services web page.
The settlement mentions exhibits that suggest the college has already devised policy language that satisfies Sanders and her lawyers, but those exhibits are not included in the materials made public by FIRE.
To ensure that incoming students aren’t hassled again by administrators and know their rights on campus, Blinn pledged to train student services personnel and campus police on the new policies within four months. It will use “reasonable diligence” to update student handbooks and catalogs that refer to the “superseded policies” before fall semester.
Need evidence that professor ‘actually curtailed’ her activities
Professor Peck’s motion to dismiss from August, provided to The College Fix by FIRE, argued that Peck’s own First Amendment rights would be curtailed if he remained in the lawsuit.
A public employee whose “retaliatory statement consists merely of vigorous attempts to persuade” cannot be said to have illegally retaliated, the filing said. Sanders named him in the suit only four weeks after their encounter, yet she lacks “some proof that [Peck] actually curtailed” her activities.
Sanders also didn’t allege that Peck “threatened to invoke governmental power to silence Sanders,” nor that Peck “declined to excuse her absences [for a Young Americans for Liberty trip to Washington], that he graded her unfairly, or that he ever threatened to do so,” the filing states.
A spokeswoman for FIRE told The Fix the group left Peck out of its amended complaint after his filing.
No more police and ‘bureaucratic red tape’ just to speak
FIRE said that because the board of trustees approved the settlement, it will apply across all campuses in the Blinn College District, not just the Brenham campus where Sanders was stifled.
The settlement not only brings Blinn in line with the First Amendment but “make[s] it less likely that students will have their rights trampled in the future,” Sanders said in the release.
— Blinn College (@BlinnCollege) April 29, 2016
It also means that the 17,000 students across Blinn’s campuses will no longer “be confronted by armed police officers and forced through bureaucratic red tape when trying to express themselves on the issues they are passionate about, said Catherine Sevcenko, director of litigation for FIRE.
FIRE said its free-speech litigation project has “restored” rights to nearly 250,000 students across the country and secured more than $400,000 in damages and legal fees.
UPDATE: Information on professor Doug Peck’s motion to dismiss has been added to the story.
IMAGE: Young Americans for Liberty Blinn College