U.S. 5th Circuit holds Plaintiff students established standing to assert University’s student speech policies on harassments and rudeness are unconstitutional

Speech First, Inc. v. Fenves, 19-50529 (5th Cir. Oct. 28, 2020)

This is a First and Fourteenth Amendment free speech case in a university setting. The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of the plaintiffs’ claims and reinstated the case.

Speech First, Inc., (“Speech First”) is an organization of free-speech advocates which brought suit on behalf of students at the University of Texas at Austin (“University”) challenging seven policies of the University. The policies prohibited obscenity, defamation, rude statements, “verbal harassment of another” with a very broad definition, a requirement that if a person demands the student to stop communicating with them the student must oblige,  and several others. The Dean of Students (Fenves) has primary authority and responsibility for the administration of student discipline. The trial court dismissed the claims due to a lack of standing. The Plaintiffs appealed.

In general, “‘a defendant’s voluntary cessation of a challenged practice does not deprive a federal court of its power to determine the legality of the practice,’” so the fact the University amended its policies does not preclude the court from analyzing the original policies. Further, some of the definitions were not amended, thereby leaving the controversy live. Next, Because Speech First seeks a preliminary injunction on behalf of its members, it must clearly show that it likely has associational standing to bring its case on the merits.  Speech First has standing if any of its members have standing. The gravamen of Speech First’s claims is that its student-members wish to engage in robust debate on timely and controversial political topics from a contrarian point of view. Because their views do not mirror those of many on campus, their speech may be deemed “harassment,” “rude,” “uncivil,” or “offensive,” as those terms are defined in the University’s policies. The court has repeatedly held, in the pre-enforcement context, that “[c]hilling a plaintiff’s speech is a constitutional harm adequate to satisfy the injury-in-fact requirement.” Evidence supported that students “are afraid to voice their views out of fear that their speech” may violate University policies.  Further, terms like “harassment,” “intimidation,” “rude,” “incivility,” and “bias” beg for clarification as they are too broad and not sufficiently prescriptive. The prong requiring substantial threat of future enforcement to confer standing does not necessarily apply for a facial challenge, only an “as-applied” challenge. The dismissal is reversed and the case remanded to the district court for a reassessment of the preliminary injunction.   The court finally cautioned that “In our current national condition, however, in which ‘institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishment instead of considered reforms,’ courts must be especially vigilant against assaults on speech in the Constitution’s care.”

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justices King, Jones and Costa. Opinion by Justice Jones.

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