A Georgia Gwinnett College student appeared before the Supreme Court on Tuesday to defend free speech on campuses. The student, Chike Uzuegbunam, was prohibited by campus officials from speaking about the Christian faith on campus twice in 2016, following alleged complaints from other students.
A day before the Supreme Court hearing, Uzuegbunam published an opinion piece recounting his experience at the college and throughout the subsequent court hearings. Uzuegbunam explained that he was barred from passing out fliers and discussing his faith with fellow students publicly. According to his account, he was having one-on-one conversations with students when he was stopped by a campus official and told he needed to file a request for a speech zone.
Even after obtaining permission to speak in a speech zone, officials sought out Uzuegbunam and stopped him from speaking about his faith. After that, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) took on Uzuegbunam’s case to challenge the college’s policies restricting free speech.
In an interview with The Georgia Star News, ADF Senior Counsel Kate Anderson shared that Uzuegbunam’s challenge to the Georgia Gwinnett College free speech policies wasn’t the college’s first.
“The school was informed three years before that their policies were unconstitutional,” stated Anderson. “They silenced Chike twice. They actually defended the policies and said his speech shouldn’t get constitutional protection.”
According to Anderson, Georgia Gwinnett College never explained their rationale for changing their policies shortly after Uzuegbunam filed his case. They also didn’t offer an explanation as to why his speech wasn’t allowed even in the campus’s designated “speech zones.”
“They stopped him two different times. He was standing in a public area, outside a library where he’d seen students speak about other things they cared about or play music. That was the first time,” explained Anderson. “They didn’t necessarily seem to require [speech zones] of everybody. [The second time,] he was standing in the designated zone and had permission to be there. They stopped him anyway.”
Prior to Tuesday’s hearing, a district court and U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit dismissed the case, deeming it moot because Uzuegbunam had graduated and the college changed its policies. Anderson argued that those circumstances don’t negate what harm occurred.
“He can no longer go back to that day and have those conversations with those students. It doesn’t address the injury to the person. Government officials need to be held accountable for violating individuals’ rights,” asserted Anderson.
Anderson added that the speech zones in and of themselves are an issue because they limit a student’s ability to speak freely in a public area. She added that another problem was officials’ ability to stop a student from speaking because someone complained that they didn’t like the speech.
“Our constitutional rights are invaluable, and we need to protect them. Holding government officials accountable is a critical part of that,” stated Anderson. “We had to have recognition and some kind of compensation for violating those rights.”
Uzuegbunam has earned support from a wide variety of legal foundations: the American Civil Liberties Union and the Americans for Prosperity Foundation both support his case.
According to ADF, they expect the court to issue a ruling well before the end of its term on June 30.
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