On Monday, students at San Francisco State University (SFSU) filed a federal lawsuit against the university, challenging a five-month investigation into the students’ constitutionally protected expression as well as the written policies that allowed the investigation to take place.

The trouble at SFSU began in October, 2006, when the university’s College Republicans held an anti-terrorism rally at which they stepped on pieces of butcher paper they had painted to resemble the flags of Hamas and Hezbollah. Unbeknownst to the College Republicans, the flags contained the word ‘Allah’ in Arabic script. A number of students at the rally were offended by the College Republicans’ act of stepping on the word ‘Allah,’ and one student filed a complaint with the university charging the College Republicans with harassment, incivility, and inciting violence, all on the basis of their flag-stomping.

In Texas v. Johnson (1989), the U.S. Supreme Court held—in a widely publicized and well-known decision—that the act of desecrating a flag in political protest is constitutionally protected expression. The university had the power to dismiss the charges against the College Republicans informally—and as a public university legally bound by the First Amendment, they should have done so—but instead chose to proceed with a long, drawn-out investigation and a hearing, after which the College Republicans were ultimately cleared of wrongdoing. Because the students were not punished, the university insisted that its process had worked. But because the sole basis for the complaint was the students’ constitutionally protected expression, the investigation and hearing should never have happened in the first place, and themselves constituted a violation of the students’ First Amendment rights.

The lawsuit asks the court both to hold SFSU accountable for unlawfully mistreating the plaintiffs on the basis of their constitutionally protected expression, and to strike down several university speech codes that, on their face, prohibit speech that is protected by the First Amendment.