Ohio University Settles First Amendment Lawsuit Over T-Shirt Slogan

Students ordered to stop wearing ‘offensive’ t-shirts

Ohio University academic and research center
Ohio University academic and research center / Wikimedia Commons
• February 2, 2015 4:00 pm


On Monday, Ohio University settled a First Amendment lawsuit filed by a student after he and members of his group were ordered to stop wearing T-shirts that said, "We get you off for free"—a promotion for his group, Students Defending Students.

Isaac Smith, associate director of SDS, filed the lawsuit against OU last July, saying his free speech was violated after administrators told him and fellow members of SDS, "I don’t want to see you wearing that T-shirt again."

The administrators claimed the slogan "objectified women" and "promoted prostitution."

"I was surprised at what a silly statement that was," Smith told the Washington Free Beacon. He said the slogan, "was a joke, a funny joke" and he was shocked someone found it offensive. "We were all taken aback," he said.

SDS gives free assistance to students accused of disciplinary infractions at the university.

The T-shirt slogan has been around since the 1970s.

Smith and SDS members complied with OU’s order because they feared disciplinary action. They also feared punishment if they failed to obey a "legitimate directive" from an administrator, the suit states, because "the same university officials who told them not to wear the T-shirt would determine whether that directive was ‘legitimate.’"

Backed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and represented by Davis Wright Tremaine, Smith filed the lawsuit against Roderick J. McDavis, president of OU; Jenny Hall-Jones, associate vice president for Student Affairs and dean of students; and Martha Compton, director of the Office for Community Standards and Student Responsibility.

As a result of the settlement, Smith said he feels vindicated.

"It’s been an exciting start to the week," Smith said. "The outcome is definitely a favorable outcome."

"It’s vindicating because I knew the university didn’t have the authority to tell us not to wear the T-shirt," said Smith. "It got to the point the only way we would get the university to get what we wanted was through a lawsuit," Smith said.

When asked if he planned on wearing the T-shirt once again, Smith responded, "Of course."

SDS has actually seen an upswing in popularity as a result of the lawsuit.

"Now more people are more aware of SDS and we’ve gotten a lot of clients," Smith said. "Everybody is excited about this in SDS." He added that students across campus have been "overwhelmingly positive" about the outcome.

FIRE said OU’s speech codes were too vague. The university’s Student Code of Conduct forbids any "act that degrades, demeans, or disgraces" another student.

"This prohibition strikes at the core mission of any university educating students. Someone could violate this policy for using any language an administrator considers to be demeaning, degrading, or disgraceful," the lawsuit stated.

"This could include pointing out a logical fallacy in another student's argument or error in a mathematical problem. Student discussions concerning any of our country's most pressing political, moral, and social issues could trigger enforcement, where one participant (or simply someone within earshot) to feel ‘degraded, demeaned, or disgraced,’ no matter how unreasonably. Under this subjective, unbounded policy, a debate about same-sex marriage, immigration policy, philosophy, or feminism could easily constitute grounds for punishment," the lawsuit said.

As part of the settlement agreement, OU is amending its student code of conduct. It will also pay $32,000 for damages and attorneys’ fees.

"The university shall adopt and enforce a revised Student Code of Conduct policy … to be effective August 19, 2015," the settlement says. The university must revise its current code within 10 days until the new code of conduct is adopted.

"Because of Isaac Smith’s willingness to stand up for his constitutional rights, OU has revised its vague speech codes," said FIRE president Greg Lukianoff. "For too long, universities have engaged in censorship with little or no fear of repercussions. FIRE is bringing that era to an end."

Published under: First Amendment