On September 15th, the Liberty Justice Center, joined by the Cato Institute, filed an amicus brief urging the United States Supreme Court to hear Speech First v. Sands, a case challenging Virginia Tech’s “bias response” policies for violating students’ First Amendment rights.
On April 8, 2021, Speech First—a non-profit membership organization made up of college students devoted to protecting students’ freedom of speech—sued Virginia Tech President Timothy Sands. Speech First argues that the school’s “Bias Intervention and Response Team” Policy and Informational Activities Policy violate students’ First Amendment rights and force students to self-censor by threatening to punish the expression of disfavored viewpoints.
The Liberty Justice Center’s amicus brief argues that the threat of punishment by the school’s Bias Intervention and Response Team has a chilling effect on free speech, even when the school does not enact formal punishment such as jail time. The Fourth Circuit Court’s ruling in Sands disregarded the chilling effect that the threat of punishment can have on free speech, holding that students could not challenge the policies because the Bias Intervention and Response Team—an arm of a state university expressly designated to police students’ protected speech—did not impose fines or jail time.
Sands is the most recent in a series of Speech First cases which have divided the Courts of Appeals. While the Fourth and Seventh Circuit Courts also dismissed Speech First’s arguments, the Fifth, Sixth, and Eleventh Circuit Courts found that bias response policies chill speech. This difference of opinion among the lower courts calls for the Supreme Court’s intervention.
“Due to the split in the Circuit Courts’ opinions, the Supreme Court has both the opportunity and the responsibility to hear this case and clarify once and for all that even informal censorship is censorship,” said Liberty Justice Center Counsel Reilly Stephens.
The Liberty Justice Center and Cato’s amicus brief, filed in support of the petitioners, urges the Supreme Court to hear Speech First’s case and reverse the decision of the Fourth Circuit Court because Virginia Tech’s bias response policies threaten students’ First Amendment rights by chilling free speech.
The Liberty Justice Center’s amicus brief is available here.