Freer Speech at Georgia Tech

August 16, 2006

Georgia Institute of Technology has agreed to alter a campus policy that students who sued the institution assert has been used to restrict free speech, as part of an accord to settle part of the students' lawsuit.

Two officers of the campus's College Republican group sued Georgia Tech in March, saying that officials at the public institution had impaired the students' free speech rights by shutting down their "affirmative action" bake sale and by limiting their efforts to protest against "The Vagina Monologues," among other things. The Alliance Defense Fund, a legal advocacy group that represented the students, argued in its complaint in Sklar v. Clough that Georgia Tech officials had based their actions against the students on the institute's residence hall policies, which defined a series of "acts of intolerance" that were banned under the policy.

Most objectionable to the student plaintiffs were provisions in the policy that restricted "any attempt to injure, harm, malign or harass a person because of race, religious belief, color, sexual/affectional orientation," and any "denigrating written/verbal communication ... directed toward an individual because of their characteristics or beliefs." The lawsuit defined those provisions as overbroad and "draconian."

Georgia Tech officials denied that they had censored the students, and said they would vigorously defend the lawsuit.

But Monday, lawyers for the institution went before a federal judge in Atlanta with a plan, drafted with the Alliance Defense Fund, to alter or drop several provisions of the "acts of intolerance" policy. Among the changes, which the federal judge in the case approved, the university agreed to eliminate the provisions that had most troubled the students, as seen in the box below:

"Acts of Intolerance" in Ga. Tech's Residence Hall Community Policy

Before the Lawsuit After the Settlement
Any attempt that is reasonably certain to threaten, intimidate, harass, or otherwise injure a person because of race, religious belief, color, sexual/affectional orientation, national origin, disability, age, or gender. Any attempt to harass or physically injure or harm a person.
Direct verbal threats to or intimidation of, or physical assaults upon, an individual because of their racial, ethnic, or sexual/affectional identity. Physical assaults upon an individual because of their racial, ethnic or sexual/affectional identity.
Posting, painting, engraving or otherwise displaying threatening, intimidating,  harassing, or otherwise injurious slogans or symbols on state property. Posting, painting, engraving or otherwise displaying any sign, slogan or symbol on state property. Official announcements or other informational material distributed by Georgia Tech are excluded.
Public displays of cross burning, swastikas, or other hate-based conduct on personal or state property. No changes made.
Sexual harassment and/or sexual assault of an individual, as defined in the GT Student Handbook. No changes made.
Threatening, intimidating, harassing, or otherwise injurious written/verbal  communications (including the use of  telephones, emails and computers)  directed toward an individual because of their characteristics or beliefs. Deleted.

The parties also agreed that Georgia Tech would make no changes in the policy without the judge's approval for five years. The agreement does not affect the rest of the lawsuit, including the students' charges that their free speech rights had been infringed. The case will proceed.

A spokesman for Georgia Tech, David Terraso, sought to minimize the significance of the university's concessions. He challenged the assertion that the now-amended policy is a "campus speech code," saying that applies "only to students who live in campus housing." 

But David French, senior legal counsel at the Alliance Defense Fund, asserted that Georgia Tech has used the "acts of intolerance" policy to clamp down even on students who do not live in campus residence halls, and that it is the "only policy Georgia Tech has that would empower" its officials to take the actions they have taken against his clients.

More importantly, French said, "the fact that the policy exists, even independent of the incidents in the case, is a violation of students' Constitutional rights." So the fact that Georgia Tech has agreed to abandon key elements of the policy, he said, "is much more meaningful."

"We have not yet dealt with the question of what happened in the past," French said. "But Georgia Tech had on its books a policy that dramatically restricted free speech. Getting rid of that policy opens the market place of ideas in a formal sense. What this order deals with is the present and future."

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