Court Strikes Down University’s Anti-Free Speech Policy Banning Student From Saying “Abortion is Immoral”

State   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Apr 22, 2022   |   12:49PM   |   Washington, DC

In a victory for pro-life free speech, a federal appeals court struck down the University of Central Florida’s speech code that university officials used to limit free speech on campus.

The group Speech First launched the lawsuit against the University of Central Florida (UCF) after challenging three of its policies that suppress and punish student speech on campus. According to the group, UCF engaged in a discriminatory harassment policy, a discriminatory computer use policy and had a Just Knights Response Team that suppressed conservative speech.

“Through the use of these policies, the UCF and its administrators created a series of rules and regulations that restrain, deter, suppress, and punish speech about the political and social issues of the day,” the group said.

Speech First was granted partial relief on July, 29, 2021 regarding the computer use policy where the University has a ban on sending messages that are “intimidation, harassment, [or] unwarranted annoyance,” and agreed that the computer policy uses “broad and undefined terms”. The district court upheld, however, the University’s bias-response team and its policy on “discriminatory harassment” and noted that Speech First had created a circuit split on bias-response teams, but it sided with the minority view of the Seventh Circuit rather than the majority view of the Fifth and Sixth Circuits. Speech First appealed these aspects of the district court’s decision to the Eleventh Circuit on September 8th, 2021.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit said it was unanimously overturning the university’s discriminatory harassment policy and other anti-bias policies for being “almost certainly unconstitutionally overbroad.”

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Judge Kevin Newsom, joined by Judge Stanley Marcus and District Judge Richard Story said the policy punished a wide range of verbal and electronic expression.

“The discriminatory-harassment policy objectively chills speech because its operation would cause a reasonable student to fear expressing potentially unpopular beliefs,” Judge Newsom wrote in the opinion.

Judge Newsom wrote in the opinion, “Colleges and universities serve as the founts of—and the testing grounds for—new ideas. Their chief mission is to equip students to examine arguments critically and, perhaps even more importantly, to prepare young citizens to participate in the civic and political life of our democratic republic.”

Judge Marcus wrote in his concurring opinion, “History provides us with ample warning of those times and places when colleges and universities have stopped pursuing truth and have instead turned themselves into cathedrals for the worship of certain dogma. By depriving itself of academic institutions that pursue truth over any other concern, a society risks falling into the abyss of ignorance…” A university that turns itself into an asylum from controversy has ceased to be a university; it has just become an asylum.”

Cherise Trump, Executive Director of Speech First, said the following in response: “This is a huge victory for every student at the University of Central Florida, as well as all students attending schools in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. We are thrilled that the Court sided with us as we work to protect students’ First Amendment rights. This court decision should send an alarming message to anyone attempting to chill, silence, or bully into submission others’ opinions. Open dialogue and an exchange of ideas are how leaders are formed, censoring students will only stunt their ability to grow intellectually and contribute to society.”