Case Study of: Doe v. University of Michigan, 721 F. Supp. 852 (E.D. Mich. 1989)


The parties involved were the Doe versus University of Michigan.

The University of Michigan amended a school policy to include a speech code in 1988, due to an increase of hate speech on campus, that stated “any behavior, verbal or physical, that stigmatizes or victimizes an individual on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, creed … and that … creates an intimidating, hostile, or demeaning environment for educational pursuits,” which any person of the university would be disciplined if they broke this code.

John Doe, a University of Michigan student of psychology and a teaching assistant in Psychology 430, sought an injunction against the University of Michigan because he felt that he couldn’t conduct discussion on campus relating to questions on sex and race differences, as Doe feared that he might be charged with a violation of the Policy if he were to discuss them in class. During this suit, Doe wanted to keep his name anonymous hence “John Doe.”


The question laid upon the court: do university policies regarding discrimination and hate speech violate the First Amendment rights to free speech?

Rule of Law:

The rule of law is that the First Amendment overrides the University of Michigan’s Policy on Hate Speech because it was too vague and extremely broad.

Judge Cohn ruled that the university did not make a clear distinction between hate speech and threats, and that the university’s Policy on speech was too broad. Judge Cohn referred to the Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire case stating, “The Supreme Court found that this statute was overbroad as well, because it punished speech which did not rise to the level of “fighting words,” as defined in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568, 62 S. Ct. 766, 86 L. Ed. 1031 (1942).”

The decision was made by Judge Avern Cohn for Doe.

Key Quote and Precedent:

“While the Court is sympathetic to the University’s obligation to ensure equal educational opportunities for all of its students, such efforts must not be at the expense of free speech,” Judge Avern Cohn wrote in the opinion.

“The Supreme Court has consistently held that statutes punishing speech or conduct solely on the grounds that they are unseemly or offensive are unconstitutionally overbroad. In Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451, 458-60, 107 S. Ct. 2502, 2507-08, 96 L. Ed. 2d 398 (1985), the Supreme Court struck down a City of Houston ordinance which provided that “[i]t shall be unlawful for any person to assault or strike or in any manner oppose, molest, and abuse or interrupt any policeman in the execution of his duty.” The Supreme Court also found that the ordinance was overbroad because it forbade citizens from criticizing and insulting police officers, although such conduct was constitutionally protected. Id. 482 U.S. at 460-65, 107 S. Ct. at 2508-10,” Judge Avern Cohn wrote in the opinion using a Precedent.

My Opinion:

If I were a judge on this case, I would have ruled that this case be unconstitutional and not align with the First Amendment rights of speech. Hate Speech to me is still speech as long as it’s not fighting words, direct threats, or cause immediate harm to someone or something.


A 1st Amendment assessment from my COMS 400 Communication Law and Ethics class at Radford University. This is 3 of 10.

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