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Virginia Tech sued by group claiming university policies stifle right-wing speech

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A computer policy at Virginia Tech meant to protect students from intimidation and harassment by their peers is too vague and broad to be enforced, a federal judge has ruled.

Virginia Tech was sued in federal court Thursday by a conservative, free-speech group that claims the university’s policies stifle students’ expression of right-wing views on campus.

Speech First, Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit launched in 2018, alleges the university’s harassment, discrimination and “bias-related incidents” policies are vague and could punish speech protected by the First Amendment.

The lawsuit claims that three Virginia Tech students — identified in court records only as Student A, B and C — “are suffering concrete injuries” from university policies because they “credibly fear that the expression of their deeply held views will be considered ‘biased,’ ‘harassing,’ ‘unwarranted,’ ‘intimidating,’ and the like.”

Court records describe the students as political conservatives who hold views that are unpopular on campus, such as opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement, same-sex marriage, abortion, and the recognition of transgendered people.

“Student A does not support gay marriage. He thinks it leads to a slippery slope. He thinks it will lead to society being forced to accept marriages among multiple people or something even worse,” the lawsuit states. “Student B doesn’t want to be forced to call someone a ‘he’ or a ‘she’ when that is not the person’s biological sex. He thinks it’s terrible that some men are allowed to play women’s sports because they claim to be women.’”

The lawsuit names Tech President Tim Sands, members of the university’s Board of Visitors and several other Tech officials as defendants. Asked for comment Thursday, a Tech spokesman said the university had not been served with the lawsuit.

The lawsuit’s filing in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia in Roanoke comes one week after the university denounced contents of a right-wing club’s leaked group chats as “homophobic, racist, ableist, and misogynistic.”

Chats from the Turning Point USA at Virginia Tech club — which invoked conspiracies about the Obamas and poked fun at trans and gay culture — were sent to the Student Conduct and Title IX offices for review, a university official said on Twitter last week.

No individual, nor the chapter itself, has faced disciplines or sanctions, a Tech spokeswoman said last week.

Speech First said Thursday it would not disclose whether any students in the lawsuit are also members of Turning Point.

Speech First has brought similar lawsuits at universities nationwide, with some success.

In October 2019, the group settled a lawsuit with the University of Michigan over its harassment and bullying policies and its Bias Response Team. The lawsuit was dropped with no finding that Michigan had infringed on students’ free speech rights, according to the university, though it did disband its Bias Response Team in favor of a different program.

In March 2020, Speech First dropped a lawsuit against Iowa State University after the university reversed its ban on sidewalk-chalked political messages and use of university networks for sending campaign and election-related emails, according to Radio Iowa. ISU’s president said “the allegations of suppression made by Speech First were simply not true.”

Speech First’s lawsuit against Tech claims the university’s discriminatory-harassment policy is overly vague because it includes “telling unwelcome jokes about someone’s identity” and urging “religious beliefs on someone who finds it unwelcome,” the suit says.

The group alleges as unconstitutional Tech’s ban on using university computer networks for “partisan political purposes”; Tech’s bias-related incidents policy; and a policy that forbids literature distribution or petition signing on campus without prior written authorization.

The case has been assigned to Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski, but had not been scheduled yet for a hearing as of Thursday afternoon.


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