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Federal Court Rules First Amendment Protects Professor's Right to Post Fliers at University

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that former University of Montana-Northern theater professor Douglas Giebel’s free speech rights were violated when fellow professor Stephen Sylvester tore down Giebel’s handbills, posted to advertise his appearance at a campus event on, ironically, intellectual freedom.

This was not the first time the two professors didn't quite see eye to eye. Sylvester was chairman of the Department of Humanities during Giebel’s unsuccessful attempt to obtain tenure at the university. According to Giebel, throughout the process, Sylvester was an out-spoken opponent of Giebel’s continued employment at the university. Shortly thereafter, Giebel filed a lawsuit, which he subsequently lost, challenging the decision not to grant him a tenure-track position as a theater professor at the university.

A year after he left the university (with his lawsuit still pending), Giebel was invited back to campus to participate in a university conference on intellectual freedom. He posted fliers on campus bulletin boards advertising his speech at the conference only to learn later that Sylvester was tearing them down. Fearing additional action, he withdrew from the conference.

Acting as his own attorney, Giebel filed a lawsuit in federal district court alleging that Sylvester violated his free speech rights. Sylvester filed a motion for summary judgment that was denied by the lower court and he then appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. He argued that Giebel’s handbills did not contain expressive content protected by the First Amendment and that the university provided the conference as another forum for Giebel to speak.

The appeals court panel, in a decision by Judge Stephen R. Reinhardt, rejected Sylvester’s arguments and ruled that his conduct was a violation of Giebel’s first amendment rights. Judge Reinhardt stated in the opinion, "Suppression of notices announcing an upcoming speech is suppression of the view to be communicated through the speech, because a speech to an empty auditorium no matter how brilliant it may be or how persuasive its delivery, does not convey any message to anyone."

To download a copy of the decision click on:
US Ninth Circuit Court Decision in Giebel v. Sylvester

To read Doug Giebel's intriguing story behind this case click on:
Giebel v. Sylvester: The Plaintiffs Story


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