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After legal threat, UT Dallas rescinds punishment of student who told parking enforcement officers to ‘f off’

Cuss words said in anger may be vulgar, but they’re also protected by the U.S. Constitution.

That is the lesson the University of Texas at Dallas learned recently after it rescinded its charge of disorderly conduct against a student who told parking enforcement officers to “f*ck off” and flipped them off after he received a ticket.

UT Dallas graduate student Cody Hatfield has been cleared of findings that he violated the school’s code of conduct after the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression intervened on his behalf, the group reported Aug. 24.

The crux of the controversy centered on an April 11 interaction between Hatfield and four parking enforcement officers who ticketed him for illegal parking in a campus lot, FIRE reported.

“Hatfield, returning to his car, shouted that the officers should ‘fuck off and get a real job,’ and called them ‘fucking parasites.’ He then drove off while extending his middle finger at the officers,” an Aug. 14 legal memo to the university from FIRE stated. “Video evidence indicated that the encounter lasted approximately 40 seconds.”

Hatfield was put through disciplinary hearings on April 25 and May 11 after two of the officers filed complaints against him. Ultimately the grad student was found guilty of violating the student code of conduct by engaging in “disorderly, lewd, indecent, inappropriate, loud, or obscene conduct or behavior that interferes with the orderly functioning of the University or interferes with an individual’s pursuit of an education.”

Hatfield appealed the two-year deferred suspension he received, but on August 1, Vice President of Student Affairs Gene Fitch denied it, arguing that “law and university policy must be applied independently in many circumstances.”

“…Although one could argue that your conduct might have amounted to Constitutionally protected speech and therefore is not subject to penalty under law, that does not mean it did not violate the Student Code of Conduct and therefore is subject to administrative processes and sanctions,” Fitch’s denial reportedly stated, according to FIRE.

In its legal warning letter to UT Dallas on the student’s behalf, the foundation stated in part that Fitch’s claim that UT Dallas may punish Hatfield’s expression “even if it is protected by the First Amendment reflects a profound misunderstanding of the university’s constitutional obligations and limitations.”

“UT Dallas is a public university, and thus a state institution. The First Amendment, applicable to the states and their political subdivisions through the Fourteenth Amendment, including their public universities such as UT Dallas, substantially restrains their authority over ‘Constitutionally protected speech’ (to use Vice President Fitch’s terminology).”

According to FIRE, the university quickly rescinded the punishment after receiving the foundation’s letter.

“We are elated to see UT Dallas rescind the charges so promptly, but we continue to urge it, and other public universities, to educate their administrators about their institutions’ obligations under the First Amendment,” the foundation stated. “Claiming that speech is punishable by a public institution even if constitutionally protected reflects a profound misunderstanding of those obligations.”

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IMAGE: KH Photography / Shutterstock

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About the Author
Fix Editor
Jennifer Kabbany is editor-in-chief of The College Fix.