Higher Education

Ray Carter | April 17, 2024

Speech First prevails in fight with OSU

Ray Carter

Speech First, a civil-rights organization that focuses on free-speech issues, has secured a decisive settlement in Speech First v. Shrum et al. after Oklahoma State University (OSU) unconstitutionally chilled student speech.

Under the settlement agreement, OSU officials have agreed to make significant policy changes on campus.

Under the settlement agreement, OSU will end and disband their Bias Response Team on campus, end their current harassment policy that targets constitutionally protected speech, allow Speech First to rewrite their harassment policy to bolster speech protection for students, change their computer policy that previously forbade students from sending emails about politics, and pay $18,000 in attorneys’ fees to Speech First.

“Speech First’s lawsuits garner wins for our students, and that’s exactly what we did here,” said Cherise Trump, executive director of Speech First. “Tenth Circuit agreed that our students’ concerns for the protection of their identities are valid. And now, OSU has to grapple with the fact that its policies violate their students’ rights. We are excited to announce that OSU will be eliminating their insidious bias reporting system that told students to anonymously report on one another for ‘bias,’ they will have to rewrite their harassment policy to include important speech protections so that students can no longer be punished for merely expressing their views, and we have secured a change to their computer policy so that it no longer targets the protected political speech of students. Finally, the university will have to pay $18,000 to Speech First— that’s almost two years of tuition at OSU. I hope universities learn from OSU’s experience that there is a high cost to violating students’ constitutional rights.”

Speech First sued OSU in 2023, arguing that OSU’s harassment, computer, and bias-incidents policies violate students’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

The complaint said OSU “created a series of rules and regulations that deter, suppress, and punish speech about the political and social issues of the day. These restrictions disregard decades of precedent.”

“I hope universities learn from OSU’s experience that there is a high cost to violating students’ constitutional rights.” —Cherise Trump, executive director of Speech First

Speech First represented three OSU students in the lawsuit.

The complaint noted OSU’s “harassment” policy disciplines students who engage in speech deemed to be intimidating or verbal abuse that “threatens” another student’s mental health. Students can even be punished for apathy or acquiescence “in the presence of prohibited conduct,” and anyone—including people not affiliated with OSU—may file a complaint against a student.

Speech First said that policy “gives students no details about what the University considers ‘abusive’ or ‘intimidating’ and covers a wide swath of protected speech.”

Similarly, the complaint said OSU’s computer policy forbids students from using their campus email accounts to transmit political campaigning, but not political issues, which the group called a “classic content-based restriction.”

Third, Speech First noted OSU’s bias-incidents policy defines “bias” broadly and students can be disciplined for alleged incidents that “occur on or off campus, including on social media.”

Students First said the “actions” targeted by the bias policy “encompass pure speech. Students can be reported for, among other things, a ‘Comment in Class,’ a ‘Comment in Writing,’ ‘Incorrect name or pronoun usage,’ or an ‘Offensive Picture or Image.’ Bias incidents can occur on or off campus, including on social media or other digital platforms.” Under the policy, complaints about bias can also be submitted anonymously.

OSU responded by trying to force Speech First to publicly identify the three OSU students it represented in the lawsuit. A wide range of groups from across the political spectrum filed briefs opposing OSU’s demand, arguing that anonymity is necessary to protect individuals from retaliation.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit sided with the students and against OSU.

The university chose to settle with Speech First after that decision was handed down.

OSU officials issued a brief statement when asked for comment.

“At OSU, we are committed to protecting, promoting, and facilitating free expression for all students, regardless of their views,” the university statement declared. “OSU embraces its role as a marketplace of ideas, and we believe a robust public discourse is a contribution to the process of addressing society’s most pressing challenges, which is our charge as a land-grant institution. In the interest of a swift and satisfactory resolution, Oklahoma State University and Speech First have reached an amicable settlement. The agreement was signed April 15, 2024.”

Officials with Speech First say the agreement provides significant benefit to Oklahomans who attend OSU.

“This is a major victory for OSU students, and we won’t stop until all students across the nation are able to exercise their constitutionally protected right to free speech,” Trump said. “We have won a number of battles against colleges who knowingly violate students’ speech rights and will continue to do so.”

[For more stories about higher education in Oklahoma, visit]

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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