A Fresno State Professor Learns an Expensive Lesson

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A college professor is supposed to teach his subject and serve as a role model for students, at least when it comes to civility and respect for the rights of others. Often, however, professors feel justified in engaging in behavior that wouldn’t be tolerated in children, as a recent case at Fresno State University shows.

A group of students – Fresno State Students for Life (FSSL) – sought permission from the university to exercise their rights of free speech by writing pro-life messages in chalk on the sidewalks leading to the university library. They had finished their messages on the morning of May 2 when Professor Gregory Thatcher came along and accosted them.

He stated that they could not chalk their messages on the sidewalk and had to confine their free speech activities to the “free speech zone” on campus. Obviously no fan of free speech issues, Thatcher was not aware that Fresno State had abandoned its “speech zone” policy almost two years before.

FSSL president Bernadette Tasy replied to Thatcher that her group had obtained permission to write messages on the sidewalk. He then announced that he would shortly return and erase their messages. He did, accompanied by several students from his 8 A.M. class (he teaches public health courses), eager volunteers in his sidewalk message battle.

When Tasy reminded him that they had full permission to do what they were doing, he and his students began erasing one of the FSSL messages. Thatcher said that in erasing the FSSL messages, he was exercising his own free speech rights. He also declared that “College campuses are not free speech areas.” One of Thatcher’s students, apparently inspired by their mentor, stole the chalk from an FSSL student and used it to write pro-abortion slogans.

The FSSL students fought back – not with violence, but through our legal system.

Aided by attorneys with the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), they filed suit against Thatcher in federal court. Their complaint contended that he violated their First Amendment rights in that he “assigned himself the role of student speech censor, a one-man taxpayer-paid heckler’s veto over student expression that differs from his own. In the process he engaged in content and viewpoint discrimination and restricted speech in areas that are designated as public fora for student free speech.”

On November 3, the court issued an injunction that prohibits Professor Thatcher from ever again interfering with FSSL’s First Amendment rights. It also imposes some rather hefty costs on him for his illegal actions. He has to pay $1000 each to Tasy and another student who was involved. He also has to pay $15,000 in legal fees to ADF.

Finally, the court order requires Thatcher to go through a two-hour educational session on the First Amendment, a session that will be conducted by ADF’s Travis Barham. As Barham said here after the injunction was announced, “Like all government officials, professors have an obligation to respect the constitutionally protected free speech of students. Of all people, professors should be the first to encourage all students to participate in the marketplace of ideas rather than erase the speech of those with whom they differ. The professor’s actions here were wrong and flagrantly violated the First Amendment.”

It’s a sad commentary on the state of higher education that any faculty member needs to be told that.

Come to think of it, Fresno State might be well advised to have the session recorded and played for all its faculty since, in all likelihood, Thatcher is not the only professor there who feels that he has a warrant to intimidate and silence students who don’t share his beliefs. What all faculty members at public universities need to know is that they are obligated to uphold the constitutional rights of their students and may end up paying a considerable cost if they can’t control their emotions when people disagree with them.

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