Virginia Tech sued for allegedly chilling students' speech with policies
'Administrators at Virginia Tech have intimidated students into silence,' organization says
Virginia Tech University is facing a fresh lawsuit from the nonprofit Speech First, which alleges that the university has set overly broad restrictions on students' expression.
Filed on Thursday, the lawsuit takes aim at Virginia Tech's policies on harassment and discrimination, bias-related incidents, and its computer policy, which prohibits the use of the network for "partisan political purposes." It also targets the university's ban on distributing literature or petitions without prior approval.
"Through this elaborate disciplinary apparatus, administrators at Virginia Tech have intimidated students into silence, refraining altogether from expressing comments or viewpoints that might be perceived as controversial or offensive," Speech First president Nicole Neily said in a statement provided to Fox News.
"This effort to restrict (and even punish) speech based on content goes against the commitment to academic discourse that is supposed to be paramount in higher education."
Neily's organization is representing several students who are also members of Speech First. Thursday's lawsuit represented growing tension at universities where students' free speech claims came up against administrative attempts to prevent harassment.
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Central to the debate have been policies addressing allegedly biased incidents.
Fox News previously reported on Speech First's lawsuit with the University of Illinois on this issue and other policies similar to those in the Virginia Tech case. A settlement earlier this year clarified that the school's bias response team and "Bias Incident Protocol" had "no authority to impose any form of discipline on any student."
It also pledged not to reinstate a previously repealed policy for prior approval of "promotional materials of candidates for non-campus elections."
The lawsuit notes that bias-related incidents include demeaning jokes and "words or actions that contradict the spirit of [its] Principles of Community."
It also specifies that one of the reported incidents included a student overhearing male students privately disparaging women who participated in a snowball fight. Another involved a student telling a joke "that included Caitlyn Jenner’s dead-name" during a lecture.
On the dean of students' website, the university frames the bias incident reporting as a way to eliminate fear, coercion and harassment.
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"Virginia Tech is committed to providing an environment of work, study and leisure/recreation for students, faculty and staff that is free from all forms of harassment, intimidation, fear, coercion and exploitation," it reads.
"Harassment may be directed at individuals because of age, color, disability, gender (including pregnancy), gender identity, gender expression, genetic information, national origin, political affiliation, race, religion, sexual orientation, veteran status, or any other basis protected by law. Any such behavior is reprehensible and subverts the mission of the university. It can threaten the careers, educational experience and well-being of all members of the community."