Court awards anti-abortion group after campus debacle

Dr. Greg Thatcher

This article has been updated from a previous version to reflect new information.

The Fresno State professor accused last semester of violating a campus club’s free speech rights claims he did nothing wrong.

Greg Thatcher, professor of public health, said last week that he never admitted to any wrongdoing after a campus club accused him in court of violating its freedom of speech at an event on campus.

Last May, “Fresno State Students for Life” claimed that Thatcher had advised at least seven of his students to erase anti-abortion chalk writings near the Free Speech Area. A video shows multiple students wiping out the messages as well as Thatcher.

The club said it had permission from Student Involvement and facilities management services to write the “pro-life” messages on the sidewalks. But Thatcher disagreed, saying the incident had nothing to do with free speech.

“This was simply a matter of policy,” Thatcher said. “I felt they were breaking university policy – this was never an issues of free speech.”

According to Travis C. Barham, the attorney representing the club’s students, said Thatcher was ordered to pay $17,000 in fines. Thatcher, however, will not be paying the fines.

Instead, the National Education Agency (NEA) will cover the costs since Thatcher was included in its insurance policy. The NEA will pay the $17,000 – $1,000 for each student and $15,000 in attorney’s fees.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit were Bernadette Tasy and Jesus Herrera, student leaders of the club. Barham said that Thatcher had an obligation to allow all students to exercise their free speech rights.

“As the video vividly demonstrates, Thatcher ignored this obligation,” Barham said. “What he did was wrong and blatantly violated the First Amendment.”

Tasy and Herrera were chosen to receive the $1,000 each because they were the two club members involved in planning the chalk-writing event.

“This sum compensates them for the lost opportunity to speak on campus—both that day and thereafter—and the bullying they endured,” Barham said.

He added that the settlement represents a victory for free speech for students of all backgrounds.

“So students of all persuasions at Fresno State should now know that they have the freedom to speak on campus and that if anyone tries to interfere with that right, the law offers them protection,” Barham said. “And university officials, including professors, are now all the more on notice that they should be encouraging free speech, not erasing it from existence.”

University President Dr. Joseph Castro, in a statement to The Collegian, said the university will “continue to educate its students, faculty and staff about their First Amendment rights and support freedom of speech by all.”

According to Fresno State’s Interim Policy on Time, Place and Manner of Free Expression, everyone has the freedom to express whatever they want as long as it complies with a number of guidelines.

Some guidelines include: that the expression can’t interfere with university events or classes; it should not interfere with the flow of vehicular or pedestrian traffic; and it should follow federal, state, local or university safety codes.

Thatcher will also need to undergo a First Amendment training as part of the settlement, which he said he will do.

According to the federal court document outlining the settlement and obtained by The Collegian, Thatcher was ordered not to engage in the same behavior.

The settlement said Thatcher is “prohibited from interfering with, disrupting, defacing or altering any future legal expressive activities that Fresno State Students for Life or its members.”

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