CIR’s 1994 victory against the University of New Hampshire was the first successful case against university speech codes and an affirmation of First Amendment rights in the classroom.
University speech codes that punished those who expressed politically incorrect sentiments were first challenged by CIR in our case against UNH. Until 1994, codes intended to protect students from an “offensive environment” were used against those accused of hate speech or sexual harassment in lieu of due process.
“JUDGE DEVINE’S DECISION … IS THOUGHT TO BE THE FIRST TO ADDRESS THE CONFLICT BETWEEN FREE SPEECH AND SEXUAL HARRASSMENT AT A UNIVERSITY.”
CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION.
Silva, an English professor, didn’t know he was violating a speech code when he told his class, “Focus is like sex. You seek a target. You zero in on your subject. You bracket the subject and center on it. Focus connects experience and language. You and the subject become one.”
Later, when discussing similes, Professor Silva recounted the way the belly dancer “Little Egypt” had once defined her vocation. “Belly dancing,” she had said, “is like Jell-O on a plate with a vibrator under the plate.”
Silva’s remarks served a pedagogical point and were neither obscene nor derogatory towards any gender. Yet when nine female students from the lecture complained to administration, Silva was suspended for creating a “hostile and offensive environment” in the classroom.
Silva appealed through the University’s standard procedures, including a vote by a student tribunal, but his suspension was upheld. Silva filed suit thereafter, and in 1994, a District Court ordered his reinstatement. In a triumph for academic freedom, his lectures were ruled to be in the domain of protected speech and the University was held liable for violating his rights.
Read articles about the case:
- William H. Honan. “Professor ousted for lecture gets job back.” The New York Times, September 17, 1994
- Jeremy Rabkin. “Rule of Law: New checks on campus sexual harassment cops.” The Wall Street Journal, October 19, 1994