An Ohio State student who unsuccessfully sought a seat on the Franklin County Democratic Party’s Central Committee has filed a lawsuit that claims the university violated his free speech rights and his campaign.
Evan Lewis, a first-year in political science, was campaigning outside the Ohio Union on March 5 when he said he was approached by university officials who told him he needed to reserve the spot in advance and that he needed to move to the South Oval. His suit claims that officials also removed yard signs promoting his candidacy.
In his suit, filed with the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas, Lewis said that the university reservation policies involving OSU property violate his right to free speech. He argues that the spaces are public, so he shouldn’t have to register to use them.
OSU spokesman Chris Davey responded in a statement that read: “The university takes very seriously our obligations to support freedom of expression, and we will continue to defend this lawsuit.”
The university uses an online registration system called Buckeye Event Network for student organizations to reserve outdoor space at OSU, but it doesn’t have an option for individual students.
Lewis said he did not register through Buckeye Event Network because he didn’t have a student organization to go through, so he just showed up.
Ohio Votes, through the Office of Student Life’s Pay It Forward initiative, was busing students to early voting locations for the Tuesday primary. Lewis said he had a table set up with coffee and doughnuts and was distributing campaign literature. He also had yard signs on the union grounds near the turnaround.
He was told multiple times to move his campaign materials to the South Oval, away from the buses. Lewis said he declined because the buses weren’t going to the South Oval.
“I’m not a student organization. There is no way for me to even reserve the space,” Lewis said. “(The university is) disenfranchising the students and disenfranchising the public at large.”
After several back and forths with Union staff members, Lewis stood his ground. He also said that his yard signs were removed, and was told that they were damaging university property.
“At that point the university was grasping for straws,” said Jeffrey Lewis, Evan Lewis’ lawyer and father.
Davey’s statement pointed out that the judge in the case, Kim Brown, has already ruled in favor of the university. The court denied a temporary restraining order Evan Lewis filed against the university when he initially filed his lawsuit on March 10.
Both the university and Evan Lewis were satisfied with the restraining order ruling because it led to an agreement between OSU and Evan Lewis over what space he was allowed to use. The two parties agreed on the Ohio Union grounds, Wexner Center for the Arts grounds and the Oval as acceptable spaces.
Evan Lewis filed an amended complaint on March 29, and said that OSU had a month to respond before he would file in federal court. The defendants are OSU, University President Michael Drake, two Ohio Union employees, Ohio Union supervisor Adrienne Gladish, a building manager, as well as additional “John Does.”
“Our original complaint was rejected because the (common pleas) court had no power to award damages in a case against the state,” Evan Lewis told The Lantern on April 1.
The original lawsuit had a reference to damages, but Evan Lewis said he wasn’t seeking any, just a change in the university policies that he says stifled his free speech. The amended complaint now only asks for attorney fees, if the court is allowed to award them.
The Ohio Office of the Attorney General is representing OSU. Dan Tierney, a spokesman at the Ohio attorney general’s office, said that the office couldn’t comment on state agencies’ policies.