(CNN) — A group of students at the University of Virginia is suing the school, saying their speech rights were violated after they posted racist and anti-Semitic messages on social media.
The complaint, filed Thursday in a federal court in Charlottesville, Virginia, said that the administration failed to stop the messages posted by students at the school, which has been in the news since the February death of a white supremacist, identified as James Fields Jr., who plowed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
“[The students’] First Amendment rights to engage in expressive conduct protected by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment were violated when the university failed to prevent an obscene and harmful incident, a public display of hate speech, from occurring on its campus,” the complaint states.
The claims against the university, the Charlottesville police and school board also include defamation and tortious interference.
The students are asking for at least $5 million in damages.
They claim the messages were “published and republished by pervasive, pervasive information through the use of social media channels, posting, message, email, SMS, and messaging,” the complaint states. “These messages of hate promoted racism, bigotry, hate, intolerance, and racial and religious harassment,” it states.
The students are alleging that they put themselves in danger when they posted the messages, and that they suffered psychological distress as a result.
Their statements ran counter to university administrators’ attempts to reclaim the campus from “domestic terrorists,” said one of the students’ attorneys, Scott Withers.
“This lawsuit is about protecting students’ speech rights on campus,” Withers said. “There’s nothing inherently unconstitutional about a university telling students what they can and cannot say, but when the university shuts them down because of which particular viewpoints, it hurts students’ speech rights.”
It’s not the first time incidents of racially-charged speech at the school have sparked controversy.
In July, the Old House, a home used as a student center and housing, posted an article about an auction for a painting by the French artist François Boucher. The piece shows a black slave owning three white children, according to the school.
Amid complaints, the president of the Old House issued an apology for the auction and said the images were posted by a marketing firm.
Over the summer, the university renamed a memorial to Confederate soldiers to honor the civil rights leader James Madison, the father of the US Constitution. The move came days after graduate students protested an Emancipation Proclamation exhibit at the school.