When officials limit speech to merely 0.0015 percent of your college campus, you’d reasonably expect justice to be served.
In 2016, two students from Georgia Gwinnett College sued their college after it violated their First Amendment rights. The college changed its policy to undermine the lawsuit, and it got off scot-free thanks to two federal court decisions.
Now, Alliance Defending Freedom is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to ensure that government officials don’t get a free pass for violating someone’s constitutional freedoms.
Let’s take a look.
In 2016, Georgia Gwinnett College student Chike Uzuegbunam felt called to share his Christian faith with his fellow students. As he was standing outside on campus, handing out literature and sharing his beliefs, a college administrator approached him and ordered him to stop.
Without realizing it, Chike had not been standing in the two microscopic “speech zones” where the college allowed student expression. Open only about 10 percent of the week, the zones comprised one patio and one sidewalk—a whopping 0.0015 percent of campus. To speak their views at all other times or places, students had to obtain a permit. Even to use the zones, students had to obtain a reservation by submitting a form and any leaflets in advance, and four officials would then decide, with no criteria to guide them, whether to allow the speech.
Undeterred, Chike went through this lengthy approval process and obtained a reservation. Several weeks later, he began speaking in the approved speech zone, sharing the plan of salvation that Christians have taught openly for 2,000 years.
Within minutes, campus security stopped him yet again because someone had “complained.” College officials said this complaint made Chike’s speech unacceptable because the College’s speech code banned anything that “disturbs the peace and/or comfort of person(s).” As a result, Chike was unable to speak about his faith anywhere on campus at any time.
Without a permit, Chike was banned from speaking in the over 99.99 percent of campus outside the speech zones. Even with a reservation, he could only say things that didn’t make anyone “uncomfortable”—an impossible task that is incompatible with the First Amendment.
Not only did this censorship unconstitutionally silence Chike, it also caused another student, Joseph Bradford, to choose not to speak at all after hearing everything Chike had gone through.
Rather than let the school trample their speech rights, Chike and Joseph decided to challenge the school with the help of Alliance Defending Freedom. As a result, the college changed its policy in an effort to undermine the lawsuit, but it did nothing to make things right for Chike and Joseph. It refused to address the way it repeatedly violated their constitutional freedoms.
Justice for Chike
You would think the American court system would correct the school for that injustice—but as of now, you’d be wrong.
Because the school changed its policies—and Chike had since graduated—a district court let the College get off scot-free with its unconstitutional actions. And the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit affirmed that decision. In nearly any other federal appeals court, there would have been a judgment in the students’ favor, acknowledging that the College violated their precious First Amendment rights.
The College—and the courts that agree with it—are sending a loud-and-clear message to students everywhere: “Don’t bother defending your freedom; we know how to game the legal system.”
That’s why Alliance Defending Freedom is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to correct this mistake.
The petition filed with the Supreme Court last Friday points out that the 11th Circuit is the only federal appellate court that leaves government officials—here, those at a public college—unaccountable for violating citizens’ constitutionally protected freedoms when those officials later change their policies during litigation.
“[T]he Eleventh Circuit’s outlier view allows these institutions to violate constitutional rights with impunity—avoiding judicial review through a well-timed policy shift,” explains the petition submitted by ADF Senior Counsel and Vice President of Appellate Advocacy John Bursch. “And it signals that colleges can keep censoring students without consequence … This Court should intervene and declare that federal courts remain open to everyone when colleges violate students’ constitutional rights.”
ADF Senior Counsel Travis Barham adds:
Government officials shouldn’t be allowed to get away with repeatedly enforcing policies that trample students’ constitutionally protected freedoms. The district court clarified what Georgia Gwinnett College refused to make clear—that its students now have the freedom to speak in any outdoor area of campus. But neither it nor the 11th Circuit held Gwinnett officials accountable for how they repeatedly mistreated, censored, and intimidated Chike and Joseph.
Georgia Gwinnett College and federal courts are telling students that their constitutional freedoms do not matter. The U.S. Supreme Court has an opportunity to affirm that they do. The Court can also make clear that government officials don’t have a free pass when they violate someone’s constitutional freedoms.
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