It’s been an eventful four years for Georgia Gwinnett College graduate Chike Uzuegbunam.
In 2016, Chike was prevented from exercising his right to free speech when officials repeatedly stopped him from peacefully sharing the Gospel with his peers at the college. Since then, with the help of Alliance Defending Freedom, Chike filed a lawsuit. And while his legal stand has already made a difference for the students that have come after him, courts have continued to deny Chike justice.
But today he got some big news: the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would hear Chike’s case and give him another chance to get the justice he deserves.
Chike’s journey to the Supreme Court started in July 2016 when he was handing out pamphlets in a plaza on campus and talking about the Gospel with interested students as they passed. College officials quickly approached him and ordered him to stop. They informed Chike that if he wanted to distribute materials or talk to his peers about his beliefs, he had to reserve time in the campus “speech zone.”
While many public colleges and universities like to advertise speech zones as a place where students can go to speak freely, these types of policies actually restrict free speech.
And that’s exactly what they did at Georgia Gwinnett College.
Combined, the college’s two tiny speech zones made up about 0.0015 percent of campus. In other words, if the entire campus were the size of a football field, those zones—the only places students could exercise their First Amendment rights—would be the size of a piece of paper. On top of that, they were only open to students for 18 hours total during the week and were closed on the weekend—which amounts to about 10 percent of the week.
That’s not much space or time for free speech, something colleges should cherish and protect at all times and in all generally accessible, outdoor areas of campus.
Undeterred, Chike reserved a speech zone and got approval to speak there. But when he began sharing his faith in the speech zone during his reserved time, officials again told him to stop. This time, campus police said it was because someone had complained. Under the Student Code of Conduct, any speech “which disturbs the peace and/or comfort of person(s)” qualifies as “disorderly conduct.” And that’s how officials treated Chike’s peaceful speech.
That’s why ADF filed a lawsuit on Chike’s behalf.
Despite the clear constitutional violations, the college initially did not back down. In its first motion to dismiss the case, the college said that Chike’s sharing of the Gospel “arguably rose to the level of ‘fighting words,’” a category of speech the First Amendment does not protect.
Eventually, the college abandoned this argument and amended its policies to allow for speech in any outdoor area of campus, likely an effort to evade accountability in the lawsuit. Because of this and the fact that Chike graduated, a federal district court dismissed the case, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld that ruling.
But the fact remains that college officials violated Chike’s right to free speech—twice! Yet they did nothing to compensate him for this. The government should not be able to violate someone’s rights and then walk away as if nothing at all had happened.
That’s why Chike asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his case.
The Court needs to make it clear that colleges cannot violate a student’s rights, then simply amend their unconstitutional policies after getting sued to avoid the consequences.
These policies hurt real people. People like Chike. And we are grateful that the U.S. Supreme Court is willing to give him another chance at obtaining justice.
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