First Amendment Clinic files amicus brief in campus free speech case

January 21, 2019Duke Law News

Duke Law’s First Amendment Clinic recently submitted a motion for leave to file an amicus brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to grant certiorari in Abbott v. Pastides, a case involving free speech on a college campus. 

Clinic students Joe Bianco, Michael Fisher, Luke Morgan, and Bryant Wright, all 3Ls, worked on the brief during the fall semester under the supervision of Lecturing Fellow Nicole Ligon ’16, the clinic’s supervising attorney, and Professor H. Jefferson Powell AM ’77 PhD ’91, the clinic’s director.

The clinic’s brief supports the position of a student and two student groups in an action challenging a number of speech policies at the University of South Carolina. Among the challenged policies are a free speech zone policy restricting student speech to only a few areas of campus and student non-discrimination and non-harassment policy the clinic argues is overbroad and vague.  

According to the clinic, policies like those enforced at the University of South Carolina have the potential to needlessly chill speech on campuses across the country. Indeed, the clinic’s amicus brief cites numerous examples of similarly problematic speech codes at other public universities in explaining to the court why it should provide guidance on this issue. 

Ligon said that the brief highlights the increasing frequency of well-intended campus administrators overstepping their bounds to facilitate civil discourse only to violate the First Amendment in the process. This issue, she said, warrants particular attention because “institutions of higher learning play critical roles in the development of students’ ability to effectively contribute to public and intellectual discourse.”  

Ligon stressed the importance of allowing students to reasonably express themselves on campus without fear of repercussion and noted that, as they are currently written, a number of existing speech codes seem at odds with constitutional protections for free speech.

The First Amendment Clinic at Arizona State University also signed onto the brief.