A Fresno State University college professor is in hot water after he, and other students he recruited, erased and defaced pro-life sidewalk chalk messages of the campus’s Students for Life club. Now he is facing a federal lawsuit for violating the free speech rights of club president Bernadette Tasy and other club members.
Tasy caught the whole incident on tape and posted it on social media. Her viral video clearly shows Assistant Professor of Public Health Greg Thatcher telling Tasy her pro-life messages are only allowed in the college “free speech” area, and it shows him erasing Tasy’s messages, while telling her his actions are part of his free speech rights. Fresno State University officials have publicly contradicted this statement saying the school got rid of its free speech zones several years ago.
The encounter started the morning of May 2. After catching some of Thatcher’s students erasing the club’s sidewalk messages, Tasy confronted the professor outside one of the university buildings. “Excuse me, we have permission for all this,” Tasy told the professor. Thatcher disputed this and then said, “The whole idea of free speech is that we have a free speech area on campus. Free speech is free speech in the free speech area… .”
“Okay, but we got permission,” Tasy protested. Then Thatcher walked over to one of Tasy’s sidewalk chalk messages and started smearing it with his foot while saying, “You see, you have permission to put it down and I have permission to get rid of it. This is part of free speech… .”
“College Campuses are not free speech areas. Do you understand? Obviously, you don’t understand,” Thatcher said.
University officials released a statement to ABC 30 in Fresno rebutting Thatcher’s claims:
“Fresno State supports and defends the rights of students to free speech and the peaceful expression of ideas on campus. The university policy is clear. Free speech on campus is not limited to a “free speech zone” or any other narrowly defined area. Universities have an obligation to encourage the free expression of ideas, values, and opinions.
The students who wrote the chalk messages received prior university approval and were well within their rights to express themselves in this manner. Those disagreeing with the students’ message have a right to their own speech, but they do not have the right to erase or stifle someone else’s speech under the guise of their own right to free speech. We are reviewing this matter and take the situation very seriously.”
Alliance Defending Freedom, a non-profit legal organization that protects religious liberty, has taken up Tasy’s cause and filed a federal lawsuit against Thatcher last week.
“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 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.”
Thatcher has made no public comments so far in response to the lawsuit.
According to several California state legislators, free speech violations of students are all too common within the state’s public college system. For example, this past March a student at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, California filed a lawsuit against his school after an administrator told him he couldn’t hand out copies of the U.S. Constitution on campus unless he got a permit and was standing in a small area designated as the campus “free speech zone.”
Back in 2015, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona settled a lawsuit filed by a student advocating for animal rights. He was told he needed to get a permit from the administration, wear a special badge, and go to the college’s “free speech zone,” if he wanted to hand out his literature.
Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez and Senator Jim Nielsen have each introduced legislation this year (SB 472 and ACA 14) to outlaw school policies that restrict free speech on California college campuses, including policies that relegate student free speech to small “free speech zones.”
“The first amendment is a cornerstone to this country’s founding document,” said Melendez, a former Navy intelligence specialist representing the Lake Elsinore area. “Our Constitution is clear. All persons, despite race, religion, or creed, have the right to freely voice their opinion without fear of retribution. Recently, we’ve seen a trend on California’s college campuses of stifling free speech. The fact that college administrators have done nothing to ensure all of their students’ liberties are protected is shameful and un-American.”
So far Nielsen’s bill, SB 472, has received unanimous support as it has made its way through the Senate approval process and it even has the support of the American Civil Liberties Union. Melendez’s bill, ACA 14, is still waiting to be assigned to a committee.