Alabama’s Troy University Faces Lawsuit for Unconstitutional Speech Code, Censorship

PARKMAN Brings THE FIRE To Troy

Montgomery, Ala., Oct. 31, 2005- Today, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s (FIRE) Speech Code Litigation project targeted its fifth university. Attorneys filed a federal lawsuit against Troy University in Alabama for violating the First Amendment by maintaining a restrictive speech code and censoring student artwork. Following victories at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, Texas Tech University, the State University of New York at Brockport, and California’s Citrus College, FIRE continues its efforts to systematically demolish unconstitutional speech restrictions at our nation’s universities.

The lawsuit was filed by attorneys Jim Parkman and William White of Parkman Law Firm in Dothan, Ala., and FIRE Legal Network attorneys Gabriel Sterling of Troutman Sanders LLP in Washington, D.C., on behalf of Troy University undergraduate Blake Dews, a senior art major attending Troy’s main campus.

Jim Parkman, nationally known trial attorney, comments on Blake Dews:

“After looking at Blake’s artwork, I really felt like it was artwork .. in the truest of sense. I think that the school recognized that it was artwork because of how they displayed it and the grade that he received.

Parkman stated .. “A true injustice was done this young man and by having the artwork taken out after it was set up, after grades were given, and after the school knew what the situation was .. I think it turned out to be an unwarranted embarrassment .. humiliating and shaming Blake’s good name.”

“My client, Blake Dews, is a young man in school that came up with an idea for an art design that absolutely is very forward looking in nature with regards to the artwork. But, also shows a great deal of insight this young man has with regards to his perception of the world and people in the world.” ñ Jim Parkman.

Attorney William White:

“Troy University holds itself out to be an international institution and we feel like a university with such broad contacts should use those contacts to spread the values of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. They should promote the idea of freedom of speech and artistic freedom especially within the university’s art department. Blake is a hard working student, who was consciously attempting to complete an assignment under the supervision of his professor .. and has been taken advantage of by Troy University.”

The FIRE Comments:

“The case against Troy University is yet another step in FIRE’s effort to rid the nation of scandalous and unconstitutional speech codes on college campuses,” noted FIRE President David French. “Speech codes like the one in effect at Troy University are incompatible with a free society.”

Despite its obligation as a public university to uphold the First Amendment, and its explicit assurance to students that it will respect the rights of students to “free inquiry, expression, and assembly,” Troy University’s speech code is extraordinarily overbroad and vague. Troy University’s handbook states, for instance, that a student can face punishment up to and including expulsion for “indecentÖbehavior or expression”; “any activity that creates a mentally abusive, oppressive, or harmful situation for another;” and for “use of the mail, telephone, computer and electronic messages, or any other means of communication to insultÖor demean another.”

“If insulting or demeaning people is grounds for expulsion at Troy State, I am surprised there are any students left on campus,” remarked FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Greg Lukianoff. “Comedians, politicians, activists, or any others who dare to criticize apparently have no place at Troy University.”

The school has also declared “jokes, or other verbal, graphic, or physical conduct relating to” characteristics including “age” and “religion” to be sexual harassment, and also bans “derogatory or demeaning comments about gender, whether sexual or not,” “gossip,” or “suggestive” and “insulting” comments.

“No school that is bound by the First Amendment can ban categories as broad and amorphous as ‘gossip’ or ‘suggestive comments,'” stated FIRE’s Lukianoff. “Such absurdly unconstitutional policies not only harm debate and candor on campus, but also dangerously trivialize real harassment.”

Beyond enacting unconstitutional policies, Troy University has also engaged in unconstitutional art censorship. In the fall semester of 2003, plaintiff Blake Dews, an art student, was assigned to create an original work of art on the theme of “birth.” Dews created a photographic display on that theme, including several photos that featured nude models. Dews’ artwork was not even close to the definition of obscenity under federal or state law, nor was it the only one that included nudity. A sign was also posted in the entrance of the exhibit advising patrons that the exhibit contained some nudity, so that no visitors would be exposed unexpectedly to photographs they might find offensive.

Dews, who worked closely with his art professor on the project, received an “A” and won an award for the artwork. Yet in early 2004, Dews was notified by his professor that three of the photos featuring nudity would have to be removed. Dews refused to remove the photos, and upon returning to the exhibit found that the three photos had been removed without his permission, although other exhibits with nudity remained untouched.

“What is particularly ironic here is that the Supreme Court has determined that if something has a redeeming artistic value, it is by definition not obscene,” Sterling said. “The very fact that Blake received an A and an award for his art should have made the university aware that the artwork was constitutionally protected expression.”

Jim Parkman emphatically stated:

” Blake Dews is a student that came up with an artistic design .. approved by his art teacher at Troy University.”

” It’s a disgrace that Blake has been depicted as a porn guy. I think universities today should try to get students to be more forward looking .. especially in the area of artistic works and more open minded in the area of art and art appreciation.”

The lawsuit, filed today in U.S. Federal Court for the Middle District of Alabama, also charges Troy University with breach of contract, unlawful conditions placed on the receipt of state benefits, and denial of due process and of equal protection of the law.

Parkman Law Firm is a nationally recognized Firm located in Dothan, Al. Lead Counsel Jim Parkman represented Richard Scrushy, former HealthSouth CEO .. and won a stunning and historic not guilty verdict on June 28, 2005. The largest corporate fraud case in U.S. history.[2.7 billion] The first CEO tried under the Sarbanes-Oxley reporting law.

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.

CONTACTS:

Parkman Law Firm .. William White, Partner ..205-552-4705. wwhite@graceba.net

On The Net: www.ParkmanLawFirm.com

David Meckley .. Publicist .. 334-792-Meck themeck@themeck.com

David French, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; david@thefire.org

Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; greg@thefire.org

Gabriel Sterling, Troutman Sanders LLP: 202-274-2911; gabriel.sterling@troutmansanders.com

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