PUNTA GORDA, Fla.—A non-profit group filed a lawsuit on Feb. 23 against the University of Houston (UH) for a harassment policy they claim punishes free speech.
Speech First, a non-profit based in Washington, accused the Texas university of violating students’ First Amendment rights by “maintaining a policy” that holds students accountable via disciplinary actions for online and off-campus speech that the university maintains is the institution’s “standard of harassment.”
The nonprofit is challenging the policy that defines harassment as “negative stereotyping” and “denigrating jokes.” The plaintiff maintains that such expressions are protected speech under the First Amendment.
“We believe Speech First has misconstrued or misread this policy as our policy clearly indicates that actionable harassment must be ‘unlawful severe, pervasive, or persistent treatment,’ the standard cited by Plaintiffs and adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court. We look forward to a prompt resolution of this matter,” Shawn Lindsey, associate vice president at UH, said in a statement.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of three students at the university who are members of the nonprofit and said that the university’s policy on harassment makes them “unwilling to express their beliefs openly.” The lawsuit says that the policy ignores academic freedom guarantees.
“Supreme Court precedent dictates that institutions of high learning are only permitted to restrict speech when speech becomes so ‘severe and pervasive’ that it crosses the line into harassing conduct,” Speech First said in a press release when the lawsuit was announced on Feb. 23.
The language of the harassment policy “reserves the right to punish students for harassment” that could occur anywhere, at any time on or off the University of Houston campus or on social media outlets, the press release said.
“Universities should not be ideological instruments for propagating expression carefully curated to match whatever ideas and beliefs happen to be popular at the moment,” Cherise Trump, executive director of Speech First, said in a written statement.
“The University of Houston is silencing its students’ speech at every turn, and inquisitive minds seeking an education deserve much better.”
The lawsuit is “just a small part” of what is going on at college campuses today, Trump told The Epoch Times in a telephone interview.
“What students and their parents do not understand is that most colleges and universities have what is called bias response teams,” she said.
“They encourage students to report ‘bias incidents’ they observe on campus,” she said. “These teams consist of faculty, staff, and sometimes law enforcement. Students are encouraged to report ‘bias incidents’ to these boards in the name of inclusion and tolerance, but it’s often unclear what the school considers ‘bias’ in the first place.”