FRESNO, Calif. (CN) — Students at Fresno State sued a professor who erased the anti-abortion messages they chalked on a campus sidewalk, then allegedly told them “college campuses are not free speech areas.”
Bernadette Tasy, Jesus Herrera and Fresno State students brought their complaint on May 11 against William Gregory Thatcher, an assistant professor of public health at California State University, Fresno. Thatcher is the only defendant in the lawsuit, filed with a federal judge for the Eastern District of California.
“No university professor has the authority to roam the campus, silencing any student speech he happens to find objectionable and recruiting students to participate in this censorship,” their Georgia-based attorney Travis Barham said in a statement.
“Like all government officials, professors have an obligation to respect students’ free speech rights. And they should encourage all students to participate in the marketplace of ideas, rather than silencing those with whom they happen to differ. The professor’s actions here represent a flagrant violation of the First Amendment.”
The students say in the lawsuit that they had permission from university officials to write their anti-abortion messages in chalk on the sidewalks to the school library.
“While plaintiffs were chalking these messages, defendant Thatcher … confronted Miss Tasy, insisting that she and her associates had no right to engage in expressive activities at this location. When Miss Tasy informed him that plaintiffs had permission, defendant Thatcher stated that he would return shortly to erase their messages,” the complaint states.
“True to his word, defendant Thatcher returned with a group of approximately seven to ten Fresno State students. Acting at his direction, these students erased, obscured, and defaced plaintiffs’ messages. One of them even stole plaintiffs’ chalk and used it to write pro-abortion messages on the sidewalks. When Miss Tasy confronted him, defendant Thatcher personally erased plaintiffs’ chalked messages while absurdly proclaiming that ‘college campuses are not free speech areas,’” it adds.
Thatcher said he erased the messages because they had written them outside the so-called “free speech zone.” But the students say no such zone exists, as the university allows students to express themselves in all outdoor areas.
They say that Thatcher “assigned himself the role of student speech censor, a one-man taxpayer-paid heckler’s veto over student expression that differs with his own views.”
Thatcher did not return an emailed request for comment sent Friday morning.
The group says other students have removed and defaced flyers they have posted on campus, and that other student organizations regularly write on the sidewalk near the library to advertise or express themselves.
Tasy says that after planning the event, she contacted the Office of Student Involvement and said her group wanted to write messages supporting pregnant students, facts about development in the womb, and ensuring that pregnant students know their rights against discrimination.
The office gave her the green light, so the group gathered outside the library around 6:30 a.m. on May 2 and wrote “positive, life-affirming messages” such as, “Love them both. Choose life,” “Unborn lives matter,” “Women need love, not abortion,” “We support & believe you can be pregnant & successful,” and “The essence of all humanity is inside a fetus,” according to the complaint.
As they were wrapping up about an hour later, Tasy says, Thatcher confronted them and promised to erase everything they wrote. He returned soon with students recruited from his 8 a.m. class and told them to deface the group’s messages, which they did, sometimes substituting messages such as “Your body, your choice. I ♥ you,” according to the complaint.
When Tasy told Thatcher that her group had permission for their event, she says, Thatcher scoffed and told her “Free speech is free speech in the free speech area. It’s a pretty simple concept. OK? This does not constitute a free speech area. OK?”
Though the university once had designated free speech zones, it eliminated that policy two years ago, according to the complaint.
Tasy says that when she asked Thatcher to tell his students to stop defacing their messages, he replied that they were exercising their own right of free speech.
While erasing one of her group’s message, “Thatcher told Miss Tasy: ‘You had permission to put it down. … I have permission to get rid of it. … This is our part of free speech,’” according to the complaint. (Ellipses in complaint).
Tasy et al. say Thatcher violated the First and 14th Amendments, and a campus policy that states “the right of self-expression does not extend to preventing self-expression by others.”
She says her group has not dared stage another event out of fear that Thatcher will intimidate and harass them again.
They seek declaratory judgment, an injunction and nominal and compensatory damages.
Attorney Barham is with Alliance Defending Freedom, of Lawrenceville, Georgia.
Free speech has been rejuvenated on California university campuses, this time as a crusade from the right, since speeches by right-wing provocateurs Milo Yiannopoulis and Ann Coulter were canceled at UC Berkeley this year for fear of violence.