Attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona based organization representing a pro-life student organization, filed suit in federal court Thursday against a Fresno State University professor who instructed students from his class to join him in defacing and erasing the group’s sidewalk chalk messages that affirmed life.
“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,” said Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) Legal Counsel Travis Barham. “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.”
In April, the Fresno State Students for Life received permission to chalk positive, life-affirming messages on the sidewalks leading to the university’s library. As its members finished chalking these messages on the morning of May 2, Gregory Thatcher, a public health professor, confronted them and falsely alleged they could not chalk messages near the library, and could only express themselves in the so-called “free speech area.” (The university eliminated this speech zone in June 2015.)
After club president Bernadette Tasy explained she had university permission to chalk messages in that spot, Thatcher announced that he would return to erase the messages shortly. He then recruited at least seven students from his 8:00 a.m. class to erase and deface the pro-life chalk messages. When Ms. Tasy reminded him that the club was acting with full permission, Thatcher walked over to one of the pro-life messages and began erasing it himself, claiming that he was exercising his free speech rights. And he erroneously proclaimed, “College campuses are not free speech areas.” The enclosed video documents Thatcher’s hostile statements and actions.
“Today’s college students will be tomorrow’s legislators, judges, educators, and voters. That’s why it’s so important that university professors model the First Amendment values they are supposed to be teaching to students, and why it should disturb everyone that this Fresno State professor, like so many other university officials across the country, is communicating to a generation that the Constitution doesn’t matter,” said ADF Senior Counsel Casey Mattox, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom.
The lawsuit, Fresno State Students for Life v. Thatcher, explains that Professor Thatcher’s decision to erase Students for Life’s expression, to recruit students to help in his censorship, and to harass and intimidate the group violates their fundamental right to freedom of speech. Additionally, the complaint asks the court to block Thatcher “and any other persons acting on his behalf or at his direction from interfering, disrupting, or altering any future lawful expressive activities that [Fresno State Students for Life and its members] conduct.”
“Fresno State Students for Life received full permission to chalk pro-life messages near the library. Rather than countering with his own message, Dr. Thatcher took the illegal approach of censoring speech and inciting students to help in this,” said Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America. “No students should have to endure this kind of intimidation and harassment for simply expressing their views, but especially not those who want to help the women betrayed, and the preborn children killed, by the abortion industry.”
Students for Life of America is the nation’s largest pro-life youth organization and currently serves more than 1,040 groups in colleges, high schools, and medical schools across the U.S. Attorney Michael L. Renberg of the Fresno law firm Parichan, Renberg & Crossman is serving as local counsel in the case, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California.