Back in May, Gregory Thatcher, a public health professor, took it upon himself to censor speech at Fresno State University in California, recruiting his students to erase pro-life chalk messages written by the Students for Life chapter. Fresno State Students for Life president Bernadette Tasy captured this incident on tape.
In response to an Alliance Defending Freedom lawsuit, Thatcher has agreed to pay $17,000 and to undergo two hours of First Amendment training. In addition, a district court issued an order that prohibits him from disrupting future Fresno State Students for Life events.
This is great news! It ensures that Fresno State Students for Life will not have to fear more censorship and harassment from Thatcher or students he recruits.
It is also a chance to promote a better understanding of the First Amendment. And based on the video, that’s an understanding that Thatcher desperately needs.
Through his actions, Thatcher was teaching his students that the proper response to speech that you disagree with is to silence it. But this is simply wrong. The First Amendment teaches that the proper response to speech you do not like is to engage in your own speech, advancing your views peacefully.
Ridiculously, Thatcher tried to claim that he was engaging in his own free speech by erasing the messages. As he erased one of the chalk messages, Thatcher declared: “You had permission to put it down. . . I have permission to get rid of it. . . . This is our part of free speech. Do you disagree with our part of free speech?” But censorship is not free speech, and it is absurd to claim otherwise. Even Fresno State recognized this, as its policies state the obvious: “The right of self-expression does not extend to preventing self-expression by others.”
Thatcher also proclaimed that “college campuses are not free speech areas” – which is completely false. After all, college students enjoy the same First Amendment rights on campus that citizens enjoy off campus. This means that all of open, generally accessible outdoor areas of campus—like the sidewalks, plazas, quads, lawns, and other areas anyone can access—are areas for free speech for students. Courts across the country have consistently struck down “speech zones” as unconstitutional. Perhaps this is why Fresno State got rid of its speech zone two years before Thatcher appointed himself the “speech police” and deputized his students to go out censoring pro-life speech.
Here’s the bottom line: What this professor did was wrong. The outcome of this case makes it clear that university officials cannot limit their students’ constitutional freedoms without facing the consequences. But perhaps most importantly, this case demonstrates the impact one student or a group of students can have on their campus when they know their rights and are willing to stand up for them.
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