Chike Uzuegbunam has graduated from college, but he hasn’t been able to fully move on.
And no, it’s not because he’s stuck in the past, reliving his glory days. Chike knows his glory days are yet to come.
But for more than two years now, Chike has been involved in a lawsuit against his school, Georgia Gwinnett College (GGC). Let’s take a look at his case and what got him here in the first place.
Who: Chike Uzuegbunam
Chike truly lives out the call of Mark 16:15: “Go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel to the whole creation.”
He is passionate about sharing the Good News with those around him. So, after Chike started attending GGC, he saw it as his new mission field.
To Chike, this is the most loving thing that you can do for someone else—to share the Good News that Jesus Christ died for our sins so that we can have eternal life with Him. But college officials did not see it that way.
Instead, they saw Chike’s message of grace and hope as “disorderly conduct.” And they silenced him from sharing the Gospel on campus.
But for Chike, this is not something he can stay quiet about. That’s why he reached out to Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) for help.
This all started in July 2016 when Chike was handing out pamphlets in a plaza on campus and talking about the Gospel with interested students as they passed. Not long after he started, some GGC officials approached Chike. They informed him that he was not allowed to distribute materials or talk to other students about his beliefs unless he had reserved a time in the campus “speech zone.”
At this point, GGC had two separate speech zones—but don’t be fooled. To say these spaces are tiny would be an understatement. Combined, these zones made up about 0.0015 percent of campus. On top of that, they were only open for student use for 10 percent of the week—just 18 hours on weekdays and closed on the weekends.
Still, Chike followed the orders and reserved a time. But when he began sharing his faith in the speech zone during the time he had reserved, campus police approached him. The officers told him to stop speaking because they had received complaints.
Under the Student Code of Conduct, Chike’s peaceful speech was classified as “disorderly conduct,” defined as any speech “which disturbs the peace and/or comfort of person(s).”
Because Chike was silenced on his campus, Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit on his behalf.
But GGC doubled down. In its first motion to dismiss the case, GGC said that Chike’s preaching of the Gospel “arguably rose to the level of ‘fighting words,’” a category of speech the First Amendment does not protect. If GGC officials can ban preaching the Gospel on campus by claiming that it amounts to “fighting words,” then government officials can do the same in other contexts. This should concern us all.
Thankfully, GGC eventually abandoned this argument and amended its free speech policy to allow for speech in any outdoor area of campus—which is consistent with the U.S. Constitution. While this is great news, it doesn’t change the fact that college officials violated Chike’s right to free speech by silencing him twice. And the lawsuit continues so that Chike can get the justice he deserves.
When: December 2016 – Present
ADF filed a lawsuit on Chike’s behalf at the end of 2016. In September 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a brief supporting Chike’s right to free speech on campus: “Colleges and universities must protect free speech and may not discriminate out of a concern that listeners might find the content of speech offensive or uncomfortable.”
In May 2018, a federal district court dismissed the case because GGC modified its speech policy and Chike is no longer a student at GGC. But the violation of Chike’s free speech rights at GGC still needs to be addressed. So, ADF appealed the lawsuit to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. And the appeals court will hear Chike’s case on May 14, 2019.
Where: Lawrenceville, Georgia
Georgia Gwinnett College is located in Lawrenceville, Georgia.
Why: The only permit students need to speak freely on campus is the First Amendment.
Free speech is not free if it is limited to a tiny area on campus, does not require a permit, and cannot be classified as “disorderly conduct” or “fighting words” at the whim of college officials. The First Amendment guarantees a right to free speech, and GGC should be in the business of upholding that right, not silencing it.
The Bottom Line
Today’s college students are tomorrow’s voters, legislators, and judges. If they are being taught that the correct way to deal with speech you disagree with is to shut it down, they will carry that understanding with them once they leave campus. In order to preserve free speech for us all, we must protect free speech on college campuses so that students learn to respectfully interact with diverse viewpoints.