– Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing a Christian student group at North Carolina State University filed a federal lawsuit against school officials Tuesday over its policy requiring a permit for any kind of student speech or communication anywhere on campus. The university only selectively enforces the policy and did so against Grace Christian Life, a registered student organization, when officials told members of the group that they needed a permit to speak with other students in the student union.
“Public universities are supposed to be the marketplace of ideas, not places where students need a permit just to exercise their constitutionally protected freedoms. The only permit needed to engage in free speech is the First Amendment,” said ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer.
In September 2015, NC State officials informed students with Grace Christian Life that, without a permit, they must stop approaching other students in the Talley Student Union to engage in religious discussions with them or invite them to attend Grace Christian Life events.
The group obtained a permit to set up a table in the student union in January and were told at the time the permit was issued that they could speak with other students from behind the table or anywhere in the room; however, when they left the table on the permitted date, a member of the Student Involvement Office approached them and told them they must stay behind the table.
As the lawsuit
explains, the university has not placed the same restriction on anyone else. In fact, Grace Christian Life members observed and documented numerous other groups freely speaking with other students and handing out literature either without a permit or outside of the area reserved by their table permit—sometimes in full view of the same officials that stopped Grace Christian Life from doing the same.
The university regulates student oral, written, and graphic speech through University Regulation 07.25.12, a policy that requires a permit for any form of commercial or non-commercial speech, which the policy broadly defines as “any distribution of leaflets, brochures, or other written material, or oral speech to a passersby (sic
)….” The policy specifies that any person “wishing to conduct any form of solicitation on University premises must have the written permission of the Student Involvement [Office] in advance.” Depending on the location of the proposed activity, the speaker may also have to obtain the permission of the administrator responsible for the facility or location where the activity is to be held.
“The courts have well established that a public university can’t require permits in this manner for this kind of speech—and certainly can’t enforce such rules selectively,” explained ADF Senior Counsel David Hacker. “Unconstitutional censorship is bad enough, but giving university officials complete discretion to decide when and where to engage in silencing students makes the violation even worse. That’s why we are asking the court to invalidate the university’s policy and allow members of Grace Christian Life to engage in the speech that the First Amendment says they can, free from unconstitutional restrictions.”
Edmund LaCour of Bancroft PLLC is serving as co-counsel in the lawsuit, Grace Christian Life v. Woodson
, filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.