The debate about free speech on campus rarely gets the chance to stand before official constitutional scrutiny. Faculty and students set their own rules, and administrations, most of the time, steer clear of the conflict. But a recent case in California is moving into court. Students at Fresno State are suing a professor they say infringed on their rights.
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The lawsuit has been filed by an anti-abortion group after the professor in question erased chalk writings the students had drawn on the sidewalk.
Fresno State Students for Life had official university approval for their May 2 protest, and that approval covered the chalk writings.
“You CAN be pregnant & successful” they wrote. And “Unborn lives matter”, “Women need love, NOT abortion.”
Assistant Professor William Thatcher, who teaches public health,showed up with a group pf students who were upset that the messages were being written in what he called the university’s “free speech area.”
And yes, for those of you attempting to follow this logic at home, Thatcher was upset that students were freely speaking in the free speech zone.
Thatcher then swept away the messages with his foot.
“You had permission to put it down,” Thatcher said. “I have permission to get rid of it.” There’s video of this. Some of the students Thatcher had brought with him then took the chalk and wrote their own messages on the sidewalk.
Part of what makes this case unique is the allegation that the students with Professor Thatcher had been brought from his 8:00 class. He went and found willing volunteers, took them back to the protest, and had them confront other students–all when they were supposed to have been in a class Thatcher was supposed to be teaching.
Joseph Castro, president of California State University, Fresno, delivered this statement to CNN:
“Free speech on campus is not limited to a ‘free speech zone’ or any other narrowly defined area,” he wrote. “Those disagreeing with the students’ message have a right to their own speech, but they do not have the right to erase or stifle someone else’s speech under the guise of their own right to free speech.”
The lawsuit is being championed by the Alliance Defending Freedom. “The crux of this case is a very simple message. Public university professors should be encouraging free speech,” said ADF attorney, Travis Barham, “not erasing it from existence. You will be held accountable.”