A long-standing legal dispute was resolved in April between the Institute and two former students, whose allegations included that their free speech rights were being infringed upon by Institute policies and through the misappropriation of mandatory Student Activity Fees, and disputed the legality of the Institute’s involvement in programs such as Safe Space.
The final ruling, handed down April 29, does not require Tech to pay any damages or make any new changes to its policies beyond what has already been done during the course of the lawsuit.
Back on March 16, 2006, the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal alliance created to “aggressively defend religious liberty,” filed a lawsuit on behalf of the students against Tech for allegedly violating students’ First Amendment right to free speech by proscribing certain types of speech in its Student Code of Conduct and Community Guide.
Institute President Wayne Clough, Gail DiSabatino (former Dean of Students), Danielle McDonald (Assistant Dean of Student Involvement), Stephanie Ray (Associate Dean and Director of Diversity Programs), and Michael Black (Director of Housing) were named as defendants in the case.
“Our lawsuit has resulted in significant changes to the policies and practices at Georgia Tech,” Malhotra said. “All students and student groups should enjoy the full range of First Amendment freedoms.”
“We are pleased…[with] today’s court ruling,” said James Fetig, Assistant Director of Communications and Marketing. “No action will be required on the part of the Institute.”
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two former students, Orit Sklar and Ruth Malhotra. The plaintiffs claimed that Tech’s “speech code” contained unconstitutional guidelines regulating the speech and actions of individuals and student organizations as well as the locations where such opinions can be expressed.
Under the code, disciplinary action ranging from warnings to expulsion was prescribed for Acts of Intolerance directed against a person because of his or her race, religious belief, sexual orientation, gender, etc.
“We filed this lawsuit…because we believe in legal equality for all students in the marketplace of ideas,” Malhotra said. “Georgia Tech’s policies were…disingenuous, unconstitutional and demonstrated selectivity in enforcement.”
The plaintiffs also claimed that Tech discriminated unfairly against political and religious organizations since the Institute refuses to fund “partisan political activities” or “religious activities” with the Student Activity Fee, which is allocated to student organizations by the Student Government Association.
In addition, the plaintiffs accused the Institute of “religious indoctrination” through its Safe Space program, whose purpose is to “provide a supportive environment for GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered) members of the campus community” and “facilitate their ‘coming out’ process.”
Since the initial filing of the suit in 2006, Tech has reached a settlement with the plaintiffs, modifying the speech code and repealing controversial provisions such as the ban on injurious verbal/written communication directed against an individual.
The Institute has also changed its Speech Zone policy and removed religious material from the Safe Space program’s website and training manual.
In the final ruling, senior U.S. District Judge J. Owen Forrester did not order any changes to Tech’s use of Student Activity Fees, but warned that though “this case [was] not the one to squarely challenge the policy…no doubt that challenge [would] occur in the future.”
“Overall, Tech has a fairly good policy on religious and political neutrality,” said Duncan Osborn, a third-year Computer Engineering major. “But since everyone pays the Student Activity Fee, using the funds for religious or political groups in which students are involved ought to be allowed.”