In early May, Fresno State became the newest college embroiled in the debate over what is and is not protected as “free speech.”
This time, however, it wasn't student protesters who blocked what they considered “disagreeable” speech from their campus, but a College of Health and Human Services professor — Dr. Greg Thatcher.
As KFSN reports, Thatcher was involved in a “viral” confrontation with the Fresno State Students for Life after the professor rallied his own students to erase pro-life messages that the group had written in chalk around campus:
The incident occurred on May 2, when the Fresno State Students for Life — with the permission of campus officials — began writing pro-life messages such as “You CAN be pregnant & successful,” “Unborn lives matter,” and “Women need love, NOT abortion” in chalk around campus.
Before they were finished, Thatcher and a group of students from one of his classes allegedly started scrubbing out the messages.
When a member of Students for Life complained, telling him that they had permission, Thatcher erroneously claimed that they were only allowed to write these message in specific “free speech areas” around campus, eventually adding:
"College campuses are not free speech areas. Do you understand?
Obviously, you don't understand."
After the video of the confrontation went public, however, Fresno State officials made it clear that not only were Thatcher's claims about specific “free speech areas” incorrect, but that they strongly disagree with his actions as a whole.
In a statement, Fresno State President Joseph Castro lashed out at his professor, noting that the university is taking the situation “very seriously.”
Castro wrote, in part:
The university's policy is clear: free speech on campus is not limited to a "free speech zone" or any other narrowly defined area. Universities have an obligation to encourage the free expression of ideas, values and opinions. [...]
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.
It seems that this particular case will not remain strictly within the bounds of academia, however.
On Thursday, members of Students for Life issued a lawsuit against Thatcher in federal court, alleging that he violated their First Amendment rights.
As their lawyer — Travis Barham, an attorney with Christian nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom — explained to the Fresno Bee:
"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.
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."
Barham added that “public university professors should be encouraging free speech, not erasing it from existence,” vowing that Thatcher “will be held accountable” for his actions.
See the full video of the controversial encounter, which was recorded firsthand by a member of Fresno State Students for Life: