A Fresno State University professor who instructed students from his class to join him in defacing and erasing a pro-life group’s sidewalk chalk messages that affirmed life has been forced to pay a settlement.
In April, the Fresno State Students for Life received permission to chalk positive, life-affirming messages on the sidewalks leading to the university’s library. As its members finished chalking these messages on the morning of May 2, Gregory Thatcher, a public health professor, confronted them and falsely alleged they could not chalk messages near the library, and could only express themselves in the so-called “free speech area.” (The university eliminated this speech zone in June 2015.)
After club president Bernadette Tasy explained she had university permission to chalk messages in that spot, Thatcher announced that he would return to erase the messages shortly. He then recruited at least seven students from his 8:00 a.m. class to erase and deface the pro-life chalk messages. When Ms. Tasy reminded him that the club was acting with full permission, Thatcher walked over to one of the pro-life messages and began erasing it himself, claiming that he was exercising his free speech rights. And he erroneously proclaimed, “College campuses are not free speech areas.”
A video documented Thatcher’s hostile statements and actions.
Now, will pay $17,000 and undergo First Amendment training by Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys as part of a legal settlement.
On Friday, a federal court issued an order, agreed to by all parties, in the lawsuit that Fresno State Students for Life filed in May over the professor’s actions. The order prohibits the professor from interfering with the group’s expression.
“No public university professor has the authority to silence any student speech he happens to find objectionable or to recruit other students to participate in his censorship,” said ADF Legal Counsel Travis Barham. “Like all government officials, professors have an obligation to respect the constitutionally protected free speech of students. Of all people, professors should be the first to encourage all students to participate in the marketplace of ideas rather than erase the speech of those with whom they differ. The professor’s actions here were wrong and flagrantly violated the First Amendment.”
Under the settlement of Fresno State Students for Life v. Thatcher, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, public health professor Gregory Thatcher will pay $1,000 in damages to each of two club leaders and $15,000 in attorneys’ fees. He will undergo two hours of First Amendment training by ADF Center for Academic Freedom attorneys, and he has agreed to an injunction that prohibits him from interfering in future Students for Life events or directing others to do so.
“Today’s college students will be tomorrow’s legislators, judges, educators, and voters. That’s why it’s so important that university professors model the First Amendment values they are supposed to be teaching to students, and why it should disturb everyone that Dr. Thatcher and many other university officials across the country are communicating to a generation that the Constitution doesn’t matter,” said ADF Senior Counsel Casey Mattox, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom. “We trust that this settlement will help reverse that message.”
“We hope the outcome of this case helps college officials everywhere understand that the free marketplace of ideas includes college campuses,” added Students for Life of America President Kristan Hawkins. “Nationwide, we are seeing incredible opposition to the pro-life speech of our student leaders and volunteers as they speak for the defenseless, reach out to pregnant women, and educate on the violence of abortion. But as this case illustrates, we are not going to be silent, even if it takes going to court.”
Students for Life of America is the nation’s largest pro-life youth organization and currently serves more than 1,040 groups in colleges, high schools, and medical schools across the United States. Attorney Michael L. Renberg of the Fresno law firm Parichan, Renberg & Crossman is serving as local counsel in the case on behalf of Fresno State Students for Life and its student officers.