Two Christian students have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review a lawsuit against a Georgia College, claiming that the college’s speech zone and speech code policies violated the students’ First Amendment rights.
Chike Uzuegbunam and Joseph Bradford, who were both students at Georgia Gwinnett College (GGC) at the time when the lawsuit was filed, sued multiple GGC officials challenging two policies in the GGC’s Student Handbook: the “Freedom of Expression Policy” and the “Student Code of Conduct” that they say prevented them from exercising their freedom of speech and freedom to exercise rights, according to Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the religious rights law firm representing the students in the case.
In 2016, Uzuegbunam attempted to distribute religious literature in a plaza at the GGC campus. Shortly afterward, he was told to stop by a campus security officer, who informed him that he was not allowed to distribute materials at the location. According to campus speech zone policy, students had to reserve one of the two zones available on campus to exercise their free speech. The two zones made up only 0.0015 percent of the campus.
About a month later, Uzuegbunam reserved and was granted one of the speech zones in order to distribute religious literature for three separate dates. On one of those days, Uzuegbunam went to the speech zone to share his religious beliefs with students and pass out religious literature. Sometime later he was ordered to stop because the campus had received complaints about his efforts. A lieutenant for campus police told Uzuegbunam that his faith-sharing efforts amounted to “disorderly conduct” under a GGC policy, which applies to any expression that “disturbs the peace and/or comfort of person[s].” Bradford, who shared the same religious views as Uzuegbunam, self-censored after seeing how Uzuegbunam was treated.
This prompted ADF to file a lawsuit against the GGC officials. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia dismissed the case, which was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. During the time when the case was in the district court, GGC amended its speech zone policy and eliminated its speech code but did not provide any relief for the students. It also removed the provision that references behavior that might disturb the peace. The policies effectively allow students to engage in expressive activity in open outdoor areas on campus without obtaining a permit, unless the group is over 30 people.
The lower courts found that the lawsuit became moot when Uzuegbunam graduated from GGC and after the college had changed its speech zone policy and code.
But ADF attorneys argue in the petition (pdf) filed on Jan. 31 that the case is still alive, citing opinions from other circuit courts. They argue that the 11th circuit is the only federal appellate court that does not hold officials accountable for violating constitutional rights when they change the policies later during the 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,” the petition states.
“This rule sends a clear message to students when school officials trample their freedoms: ‘Don’t bother retaining counsel; we know how to game the legal system.’ 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 Tyson Langhofer, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom, said in a statement that he hopes that the top court would weigh-in in order to “make sure that this denial of justice doesn’t occur to anyone else.”
“We need to ensure that the wrong done to our clients is righted—something that both the district court and the 11th Circuit failed to do,” Langhofer said.
The case came under the spotlight in 2017 after the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a Statement of Interest supporting the two students.
At the time, the DOJ argued that the students had adequately provided enough evidence to allege a violation of their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights and that GGC’s speech policies were not “content-neutral, established an impermissible heckler’s veto, and were not narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest.”
“A national recommitment to free speech on campus and to ensuring First Amendment rights is long overdue. Which is why, starting today, the Department of Justice will do its part in this struggle. We will enforce federal law, defend free speech, and protect students’ free expression,” former Attorney General Jeff Sessions said at the time.