Two Fresno State students are suing a professor for erasing anti-abortion messages they wrote in sidewalk chalk on campus earlier this month, claiming their free speech rights were violated.
Video footage shows Greg Thatcher, a professor of public health, scrubbing out messages like “women need love, not abortion” with his shoe and instructing other students to do the same. Thatcher claimed that the messages would only be allowed in a designated “free speech area” on campus, and says in the video that “college campuses are not free speech areas.”
However, Fresno State no longer has such a free speech zone, and an official said in a statement Thursday that “our entire campus is open and supports freedom of expression.”
In the video, Thatcher is arguing with 21-year-old student Bernadette Tasy, who is involved in a national anti-abortion group called Students for Life of America. The organization is founded on the belief that “all human life from the point of conception until natural death is sacred and has inherent dignity.”
Tasy, along with Fresno State student Jesus Herrera, allege in a lawsuit filed in federal court Thursday that Thatcher ordered seven to 10 students to erase their anti-abortion messages, and that one student stole the chalk and wrote a pro-abortion message.
“The only permit a student needs to have free speech on campus is the First Amendment,” Tasy, a speech pathology major from Sanger, said Thursday. “What the professor did was wrong.”
Fresno State President Joseph Castro said the university is reviewing the incident and taking it “very seriously.” Tasy and Herrera received approval from the university before writing the messages and were “well within their rights” to do so, he said.
“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,” Castro said.
Castro also pointed to the university’s policy that says free speech on campus is not limited to a free speech zone “or any other narrowly defined area.”
No university professor has the authority to roam the campus, silencing any student speech he happens to find objectionable.
Travis Barham, Alliance for Defending Freedom
The lawsuit alleges that universities across the country censor ideas that the administration doesn’t agree with and that professors “manipulate student passions.” Thatcher “assigned himself the role of student speech censor, a one-man taxpayer-paid heckler’s veto over student expression that differs with his own views,” the lawsuit says.
Travis Barham, an attorney with Alliance for Defending Freedom – a Christian nonprofit that is representing the students – said he hopes the case will be used to warn professors across the country about students’ rights to free speech.
“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,” Barham said. “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.”
Students for Life of America also issued a statement condemning the professor’s actions.
“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 pre-born children killed, by the abortion industry,” said Kristan Hawkins, president of the group.