FIRE in the Courts

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression’s mission is to defend and sustain the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought—the most essential qualities of liberty. 

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Dubash v. City of Houston, et al.: Animal rights advocates sue after facing ongoing censorship and arrest for peaceful advocacy in Houston public park

Faraz Harsini and Daraius Dubash
Faraz Harsini (left) and Daraius Dubash (right) are suing the City of Houston for First Amendment violations.

The Law & Religion Clinic at the University of Texas and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression filed a lawsuit against the City of Houston, several Houston police officers, and Discovery Green Conservancy after police officers arrested an animal rights advocate for refusing to give up his First Amendment right to free speech in Discovery Green, a public park described as the “crown jewel of public spaces in downtown Houston.”

The management of Houston’s public Discovery Green Park was concerned that passers-by might be “offended” by the advocates’ message. The officers’ actions were a clear violation of the advocates’ First Amendment right to speak freely in a public park —a park where peaceful protests happen regularly.

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Northern Light Health and Eastern Maine Medical Center adv. Samson Cournane: 15-year-old Mainer Fights Hospital Conglomerate’s Attempt to Silence Him With Lawsuit Threat

Samson Cournane, the 15-year-old college student fighting a hospital over his free speech
Samson Cournane

Samson Cournane isn’t your average 15-year-old. This fall, he starts his junior year as a computer science major at the University of Maine after making the dean’s list in the spring. But like many college students, Samson is engaged, outspoken, and passionate. And for that, a healthcare corporation tried to shut him up.

Samson Cournane wrote a petition to his congressman and a letter to his university’s student newspaper calling attention to patient-safety concerns at a local hospital. The hospital’s parent corporation, Northern Light Health, responded by threatening to sue Samson’s mother for defamation. FIRE is demanding Northern Light Health retract its lawsuit threat and respect Samson’s right to speak freely and petition government officials.

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Palsgaard v. Christian: California Community Colleges administrators compel professors to parrot the state’s views on DEIA in the classroom

Reedley College professor Bill Blanken, one of FIRE's plaintiffs suing the California Community Colleges system
Reedley College professor Bill Blanken, one of FIRE's plaintiffs suing the California Community Colleges system. (Limelight Photography)

In May 2022, the California Community Colleges Board of Governors approved diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) regulations requiring all community college professors to incorporate the state’s views on DEIA into their teaching. FIRE filed suit on behalf of six professors in the State Center Community College District against California Community Colleges state officials and district officials in State Center Community College District, seeking to halt the state’s unconstitutional rules and the district’s enforcement of the rules through its faculty contract. 

The DEIA Rules mandate viewpoint conformity, compel professors to teach and preach the State’s perspective on DEIA, impose a prior restraint on the sharing of contrary views, and subject professors to an array of overbroad, vague, and arbitrary requirements.

But the government may not impose political or ideological litmus tests on college faculty as a condition of employment or advancement. The First Amendment protects the right of college faculty to teach and speak free from state interference. The DEIA regulations unconstitutionally compel professors to embed and endorse contested ideological views in their academic activities and restrict expression of contrary views through an array of overbroad, vague, and arbitrary requirements. 

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I.P. v. Tullahoma City Schools: A principal’s ego doesn’t override the First Amendment

Image depicting a student being suspended for social media content

High schools cannot punish a student for satirizing the principal on social media when the satire occurs off campus and does not cause substantial disruption at school. A principal’s pride is not an exception to the First Amendment. On Aug. 10, 2022, Tullahoma High School’s principal and assistant principal called a 17-year-old rising senior to their office and interrogated him about three images on his personal Instagram. The memes caused no disruption at school. Nevertheless, the school slapped the student with a three-day, out-of-school suspension, citing a school policy prohibiting students from posting images on social media which “embarrass,” “discredit,” or “humiliate” another student or school staff. What’s more, Tullahoma High School also broadly prohibits social media activity that is “unbecoming of a Wildcat,” the school’s mascot. What those policies mean, specifically and practically, is anyone’s guess. 

On July 19, 2023, FIRE filed a lawsuit on the student’s behalf — and to defend the First Amendment for all America’s students. Teenagers get to use their First Amendment rights, not just learn about them.

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Gray v. Lt. Hemminger: The First Amendment Is Not ‘A Game’ — Not Even In Port Wentworth, GA

Jeff Gray victory
FIRE plaintiff Jeff Gray holding a sign reading "God Bless the Homeless Vets" (Lacy Jessica Photography)

Holding a sign is not a crime. The First Amendment guarantees the right to speak on public property outside City Hall: in Alpharetta, in Blackshear, and across the United States. On July 19, 2021, Jeff Gray stood on the sidewalk outside Port Wentworth City Hall holding a large sign reading “God Bless the Homeless Vets.” In a conversation caught on an officer’s body camera, city employees — informed by the officer that Gray was doing nothing unlawful — wanted him removed anyway. When Gray began filming and asked whether he was being banned from the property, Sergeant Robert Hemminger bellowed: “As of now you are!”

On July 17, 2023, FIRE filed a lawsuit on Jeff Gray’s behalf — and to defend the First Amendment for all. Hemminger said Gray was “playing the game” by standing up for his rights. The Constitution is not a game. It’s a rulebook. One that FIRE will make Port Wentworth police obey.

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Utah Library Association adv. City of Orem: City Punishing Librarians for Protected Speech

The City of Orem banned book displays for gay pride, women’s history, and minority groups. When the Utah Library Association (ULA) criticized that policy as discriminating against particular viewpoints, the City stripped library staff, including Orem librarian and former president of the ULA Rita Christensen, of a key professional benefit the city provided for years: time and resources to join and participate in ULA programs. Further, the City warned the librarians not to criticize its policies, or else risk being fired under an unconstitutionally vague social media policy that forbids employees from making “disparaging comments” about the city, its policies, or its leadership.

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FIRE to Uvalde: Lift ban on father who questioned school safety or we'll sue

FIRE plaintiff Adam Martinez
Adam Martinez, father of two students in the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District. (Photo by Nycole Knoxx)

Mere months after the Uvalde school district suspended its entire police force for failing to effectively respond to a deadly shooting at an elementary school, school officials banned a concerned parent from school property — because he questioned the qualifications of a new police hire. FIRE demanded the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District lift its ban against Adam Martinez, a father of two students in the district. The district banned Martinez from all district property for two years, including from school board meetings. FIRE’s letter to UCISD threatens litigation if the district does not lift the unconstitutional ban by May 22, 2023.

“My community counts on me to be their voice, but the district wants to shut me up,” said Martinez. “My fight has always been for the 21 people who no longer have a voice and for those who are too scared to speak up about social injustice.”

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D.A. v. Tri County Area Schools: School District Forces Students to Remove “Let’s Go Brandon” Sweatshirts

Let's Go Brandon sweatshirt

In 2022, two students at Tri County Middle School wore sweatshirts to school with the phrase “Let’s Go Brandon,” a well-known, non-profane, anti-President Biden political slogan. But school officials ordered the students to remove their political attire while allowing other students to wear apparel with different political messages, including gay-pride-themed hoodies. The U.S. Supreme Court made clear a half-century ago that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” On April 25, 2023, FIRE filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block the school’s viewpoint-discriminatory ban on “Let’s Go Brandon” apparel, as well as its dress code provision banning students from wearing clothing which “calls undue attention” to the student. Whether it’s a Pride Flag, Trump flag, or Let’s Go Brandon shirt, schools can’t pick and choose which political beliefs are worthy of expression.

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Gray v. City of Alpharetta: Army Veteran Arrested in Alpharetta, Georgia for Holding ‘God Bless the Homeless Vets’ Sign in Front of City Hall

Jeff Gray featured image
FIRE plaintiff Jeff Gray holding a sign reading "God Bless the Homeless Vets" (Lacy Jessica Photography)

On January 27, 2022, Jeff Gray held a sign reading “God Bless the Homeless Vets” outside Alpharetta City Hall to raise awareness of the plight of homeless veterans. Within minutes, an Alpharetta police officer told Gray that “panhandling” was illegal in the city and that Gray needed to leave.

Gray was not panhandling, but police argued that his sign was, itself, “panhandling" and detained him. On January 31, 2023, FIRE filed a lawsuit on Gray’s behalf to vindicate his constitutional rights and end Alpharetta’s unwritten ban on “panhandling.”

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Spectrum WT v. Walter Wendler: President Cancels Student-Organized Drag Show, Citing Religion, Natural Rights, and Intent to Violate the First Amendment, if Need Be

FIRE sues Texas university president for illegally blocking charity drag show

On March 20, 2023, Walter Wendler, the president of West Texas A&M University, abruptly canceled a drag show that a student group — Spectrum WT, an organization for LGBTQ+ students and their allies — was planning to hold at the public university. In an email (also posted on his personal blog) to students, faculty, and staff, Wendler denounced drag shows as “slapstick” intended to “denigrate and demean women.” Wendler said he would “not appear to condone” such speech, “even when the law of the land appears to require it.”

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Volokh v. James: Big Brother in the Big Apple: New York Law Turns Bloggers into Speech Police

Eugene Volokh plaintiff photo
Eugene Volokh

New York has enacted a new law with the goal of regulating disfavored—but constitutionally protected—online speech. State lawmakers passed the law in the wake of the tragic mass shooting by a white supremacist this past May in Buffalo, New York. It targets protected online speech that lawmakers consider “hateful,” and is so overbroad it reaches a vast swath of the internet. The law seems to be just the first step in further regulation of online speech—which, if adopted, would also violate the First Amendment. But FIRE is fighting back. On Dec. 1, we sued New York’s Attorney General in federal court on behalf of Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment scholar and co-founder of The Volokh Conspiracy blog, and online platforms Rumble and Locals, seeking to stop enforcement of New York’s unconstitutional law.

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Novoa v. Diaz: Florida Board of Governors: Florida Law Restricting How College Professors, Students Can Discuss Race and Sex

More than a half-century ago, the Supreme Court recognized that the First Amendment “does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom,” where “truth” is discovered not by “authoritative selection,” but “out of a multitude of tongues.” In a remarkable retreat from Florida’s Campus Free Expression Act, which recognized that universities should not “shield” students from “uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive” opinions,  Florida’s “Stop WOKE Act” imposes precisely the “pall of orthodoxy” that the Supreme Court warned about decades ago.

Photos of FIRE Plaintiffs Adriana Novoa and Sam Rechek
Professor Adriana Novoa and student Sam Rechek are fighting against government censorship in Florida. (Credit: Will Simpson Photography)

The Stop WOKE Act prohibits “instruction” on eight specific “concepts” related to “race, color, national origin, or sex.” Fla. Stat. § 1000.05(4)(a). For example, the Stop WOKE Act unlawfully restricts discussions of whether individuals are unconsciously biased based on their race or sex; whether certain virtues — including “merit, excellence, hard work, fairness, neutrality, objectivity, and racial colorblindness” — are racist; and whether particular races or sexes inherently have certain privileges or disadvantages. But in dictating to faculty and students what ideas may be considered in a college classroom, Florida’s political leaders have run headlong into the First Amendment. 

On August 6, 2022, a University of South Florida professor of history, undergraduate student, and student organization — represented by FIRE — sued in federal court to challenge the Stop WOKE Act for violating their constitutional rights. 

Read more about FIRE's lawsuit against the Stop Woke Act


Collin Community College District: History Professor Fired for Criticizing Mike Pence and Her College’s COVID-19 Response Online

Burnett victory
Collin College history professor Lora Burnett

Lora Burnett was a full-time history professor at Collin College. Like many Americans, Burnett shared her thoughts about important public issues, such as the 2020 presidential election and the COVID-19 pandemic on Twitter. During the October 2020 vice presidential debate, Burnett tweeted: “The moderator needs to talk over Mike Pence until he shuts his little demon mouth up.” Burnett also criticized Collin College’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. She publicly challenged Collin College President H. Neil Matkin’s assessment that the pandemic was “blown utterly out of proportion.” She also informed the public about the death of a former Collin College professor by tweeting, “Another @collincollege professor has died of COVID.” In private text exchanges with Texas State Rep. Jeff Leach, who was apparently upset about Burnett’s tweets concerning the debate, President Matkin promised to “deal with it” and later terminated Burnett.

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Eastern Virginia Medical School: Medical Student Unconstitutionally Prohibited from Starting Student Club Promoting Healthcare Reform

Eastern Virginia Medical School student Edward Si
Eastern Virginia Medical School student Edward Si

Edward Si, a medical student at Eastern Virginia Medical School, applied to form a chapter of Students for a National Health Program, a national student organization dedicated to advocating for a single-payer health system, in December 2020. EVMS’s Student Government Association denied the application because it did “not want to create clubs based on opinions, political or otherwise, and the mission and goals of [SNaHP] do not describe what we believe to be necessary or sustainable for a club.”

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LAWSUIT: Student journalist SUES his university, and WINS! 

Haskell Indian Nations University Student Journalist Jared Nally
Student journalist Jared Nally

The president of Haskell Indian Nations University issued an unconstitutional directive to student journalist Jared Nally, editor-in-chief of the award winning student newspaper, The Indian Leader, that formally forbade Jared from engaging in protected journalistic activities. Without any notice or explanation, Haskell withheld more than $10,000 from the paper’s expected funds. He also directed Jared to start showing university administrators the “highest respect” — or else!

On March 2, 2021, on the heels of Student Press Freedom Day 2021, Nally and The Indian Leader — represented by FIRE — sued Haskell. In bringing this lawsuit, Nally and The Indian Leader seek to hold Haskell’s leadership accountable for flagrantly violating clearly established First Amendment rights — and make sure students and student journalists at Haskell and nationwide can ask questions, report the news, and talk with each other about what matters most to them.

Read more about Jared's lawsuit