A federal district judge in Virginia has dismissed a lawsuit filed by a group of feminist students who were sad and angry because officials at a taxpayer-funded university refused to stifle speech by other students that offended the feminist group.
The kerfuffle which gave rise to the failed lawsuit occurred on the campus of the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg back in the fall of 2014. It involved the now-defunct social media app Yik Yak. The app provided a forum for students on individual campuses to post messages anonymously.
Five student plaintiffs who belonged to the student club Feminists United on Campus said they asked Mary Washington administrators to ban Yik Yak on campus. Some students were using the app to make “hundreds” of “threatening” and “sexually hostile” remarks about posted flyers which sought to raise awareness about sexual assault,” reports Campus Reform.
When the administrators said they could not limit speech just because it was offensive, the feminist students sued in return, alleging that the public school failed to protect them “from a sexually hostile school environment.”
The lawsuit, which was litigated by the Feminist Majority Foundation, claimed that school officials violated Title IX — a comprehensive 1972 federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex — as well as the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Writing for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Judge John A. Gibney ruled last week that the University of Mary Washington did not fail to protect the students. Givney reasoned that school administrators could not control comments posted on Yik Yak because they did not own nor have any control over the social media service.
Gibney concluded that “no constitutional violation occurred, let alone a clearly established or continuing violation.”
An Obama appointee also dismissed a Title IX retaliation claim against the school because, he observed, administrators “took no retaliatory action” against the offended students.
In their lawsuit, the feminist student plaintiffs had accused school officials of a “systemic failure” to prevent digital harassment. The feminist students said they were scared they would be physically attacked after reading anonymous Yik Yak comments. At least one student said she was so afraid that she had asked campus police officers to escort her to certain campus events.
The feminist students wanted Mary Washington administrators to make Yik Yak disappear from campus or, alternatively, to prevent all students from accessing Yik Yak using the campus wireless network.
In his regular opinion column at The Washington Post, UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh noted that school officials would have breached the First Amendment rights of every student on the public school campus had they tried to ban the Yik Yak app.
“A public university can’t block otherwise available student access to an entire privately operated communication platform, just because a few students are using that platform in ways that are rude, harmful to public debate, or even outright criminal,” Volokh suggested.
“Such a block is a classic prior restraint,” Volokh said, and courts generally regard prior restraint as unconstitutional.
A spokeswoman for the University of Mary Washington, Marty Morrison, told Campus Reform school officials welcomed the decision.
“Mary Washington prioritizes student safety and opposes all forms of discrimination,” Morrison also said.
The failed feminist lawsuit lists five Mary Washington students as plaintiffs: Paige McKinsey, Julia Michels, Kelli Musik, Jordan Williams, and Alexis Lehman. All five were members of Feminists United on Campus. The small group claimed to have approximately 30 members in total.
Musik’s Facebook page shows that she belongs to several groups including Bernie Sanders 4 President 2020, Lesbian Health & Research Center and a slew of feminist factions.
Lehman’s Facebook likes include Feminists United UMW, Indigenous Environmental Network and, of course, her local Starbucks.