Professor sues to end PC speech restrictions

Constitutionality of Minnesota’s computer policy also at stake

Washington, D.C. – A Minneapolis-area history professor muzzled by college administrators filed suit in federal court today to protect his First Amendment rights, after finding himself in the middle of the battle raging on college campuses between political correctness and free speech. North Hennepin Community College accused Professor Jon Willand of being “offensive” after he put a poster of General George Custer on his office door and told his class, among other things, that “Pocahontas somersaulted naked throughout Jamestown.” The college responded by imposing a suspension (later rescinded) and a series of¬†broad but vague¬†speech restrictions on Professor Willand.

Willand is forbidden to use “examples which are provocative or inflammatory” or “phraseology which does not manifest a clear concern for student sensibilities and which may promote student misunderstandings.” In short, these and similar directives prohibit Willand from saying anything that someone might find offensive. His lawsuit against college officials charges that these directives violate his First Amendment rights to free speech and academic freedom.

If Professor Willand downloaded the Custer poster from the Internet or visited the official Jamestown web site – which reports on Pocahontas’s nude acrobatics – he could be subjected to additional discipline. That’s because North Hennepin Community College bans the use of computer equipment for the “receipt, storage or transmission of offensive . . . information.” This computer speech code further chills Willand’s First Amendment rights, and his lawsuit includes a challenge to the ban. The code is adopted from a statewide policy, so the suit names the state college system’s governing board and other state officials as additional defendants.

Because the various speech restrictions are preventing Professor Willand from freely expressing his views and are impairing his ability to conduct computer research, he is asking the court in Minneapolis to enjoin enforcement of the restrictions, as well as declaring them unconstitutional. Willand also seeks the removal of associated reprimands from his employment file and is asking for compensatory and punitive damages.

Willand is represented by the Center for Individual Rights (CIR) in Washington, DC, and Daniel Rosen of Minneapolis’s Rosen & Rosen. The Minnesota Civil Liberties Union will also file a brief on Willand’s behalf.

Mr. Rosen summed up Professor Willand’s predicament by noting that the history professor “is being punished for deviating from a politically correct view of American history.” “Political correctness may be a powerful force in academia,” Rosen said, “but it does not trump the First Amendment.” Curt Levey, CIR’s Director of Legal & Public Affairs, predicted a legal victory for Willand, explaining that “viewpoint-based restrictions on speech, such as those imposed on Professor Willand, are viewed with great suspicion by the law and are simply not permitted.” “We brought this lawsuit not only to vindicate Professor Willand’s rights,” Levey added, “but also to strengthen the First Amendment protection of academics everywhere.”