A federal appeals court panel has ruled against the University of Central Florida policy banning "discriminatory harassment" because it likely violates students' freedom of speech.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit issued a unanimous ruling Thursday overturning a lower court decision to deny the legal nonprofit Speech First a preliminary injunction stopping the UCF policy. The case has been remanded back to the court for further consideration.
“We hold (1) that Speech First has standing to sue because the challenged policies chill its members’ speech and (2) that the discriminatory-harassment policy likely violates the First Amendment on the grounds that it is an overbroad and content- and viewpoint-based regulation of constitutionally protected expression,” wrote Circuit Judge Kevin Newsom for the panel.
“Because the district court never considered the bias-related-incidents policy’s constitutionality on the merits — having erroneously concluded that Speech First lacked standing to challenge it — we remand for a determination of that issue.”
According to the ruling, the school's policy defined discriminatory harassment as “verbal, physical, electronic or other conduct" based on a long list of factors that include race, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, mental disability and or political affiliations.
Speech First Executive Director Cherise Trump said in a statement the panel opinion is “a huge victory for every student at the University of Central Florida, as well as all students attending schools in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama.”
“We are thrilled that the Court sided with us as we work to protect students’ First Amendment rights. This court decision should send an alarming message to anyone attempting to chill, silence, or bully into submission others’ opinions,” she stated.
“Open dialogue and an exchange of ideas are how leaders are formed, censoring students will only stunt their ability to grow intellectually and contribute to society.”
In February 2021, Speech First filed a lawsuit against university officials on behalf of students seeking to engage in debates over hot-button issues.
According to the complaint, the university policy was “overbroad” because it punished students who engaged in “verbal acts, name-calling, [or] graphic or written statements (via the use of cell phone or the internet)” that other students may find “humiliating” or offensive.
The lawsuit expressed concern over UCF’s bias response team, which according to the lawsuit, could discipline behavior done on or off campus “without regard to whether the act is legal, illegal, intentional, or unintentional.”
UCF attorneys argued in a brief last October that the university was fulfilling “its obligations to prohibit discriminatory harassing speech so that all individuals can be educated and work in an environment that is free from such discriminatory harassing speech that falls beyond the line of protected speech.”
“When it comes to speech-based harassment, the Supreme Court has been clear: The First Amendment protects speech up to a well-defined line, but discriminatory harassing speech on the basis of a protected trait or characteristic falls beyond that line as one of the recognized categories of ‘unprotected’ speech,’” stated the brief, as quoted by the News Service of Florida.
“[The policy] is clearly aimed at regulating only unprotected speech and conduct that unreasonably invades the rights of other students.”