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Next month, Christopher Todd Brown will try to get the U.S. Supreme Court to grant certiorari in an effort to establish what he considers a basic constitutional right — the right to write “F–k You” to university administrators in his master’s thesis. In an opinion amended on Oct. 24, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that Brown did not have a First Amendment free speech right to insert a “Disacknowledgements” section in his thesis where he extended the insults to university administrators and then-California Governor Pete Wilson. Brown v. Li, No. 01-55930 (9th Cir. 2002). Brown was a graduate student at the University of California at Santa Barbara. In his materials science masters’ thesis entitled, “The Morphology of Calcium Carbonate: Factors Affecting Crystal Shape,” Brown inserted the section in place of the customary acknowledgements section. The university refused to confer his degree. However, Dean Charles Li informed Brown that his thesis would be approved and his degree would be conferred if he removed the offending material. Instead, Brown sued. Brown argued, inter alia, that by withholding his degree, the university violated his free speech rights under both the U.S. and California constitutions. However, a U.S. district court rejected Brown’s federal claims and granted the university’s motion for summary judgment. The 9th Circuit affirmed the district court on Brown’s federal claims. Relying on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 opinion in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the court held that the university did not violate Brown’s free speech rights by refusing to approve the “Disacknowledgements” section. The court said, “An academic thesis co-signed by a committee of professors is not a public forum, limited or otherwise.” Although the 9th Circuit rejected Brown’s federal claims, it remanded the case for determination of his state law claims, which were unaddressed by the district court. However, Brown’s attorney, Paul Hoffman of Venice, Calif.’s Schonbrun, Desimone, Seplow, Harris & Hoffman, said he will ask for postponement of a Dec. 2 district court date to pursue review by the U.S. Supreme Court. In wanting to go to the Supreme Court before pursuing the state claims on remand, Hoffman pointed to the dissent in the 9th Circuit’s opinion. Noting that the 1st and 6th circuits have refused to apply Hazelwood — a case involving high school students — to college and university students, the dissent argued that university students such as Brown should be afforded greater constitutional protection. University counsel Christopher Patti argues there is no circuit split. “The 9th Circuit took great pains to distinguish the cases — this is an academic case; those were extracurricular cases,” he said. As for Brown, the experience has made him reconsider his career choice. “I think I’m going to law school.”

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