The United States Department of Justice has filed a statement of interest in a Georgia dispute over a college’s limited “free speech zones,” warning that schools must in America “protect free speech” and must not prevent students from “communicating religious messages.
The comments from the DOJ were filed in the Atlanta division of the U.S. District Court for the northern district of Georgia, and came in a case brought by the Alliance Defending Freedom on behalf of student Chike Uzuegbunam.
The policies and practices at Georgia Gwinnett College forbid any expression “which disturbs the peace and/or comfort of person(s)” and limits any speech to “two tiny speech zones that make up less than 0.0015 percent of campus and are open only 18 hours per week,” the DOJ noted.
“School officials used the policies to censor a student from speaking about his Christian faith,” notes the complaint, filed at the end of 2016.
“The First Amendment guarantees every student’s freedom of speech and religion. Every public school – and especially a state college that is supposed to be the ‘marketplace of ideas’ – has the duty to protect and promote those freedoms,” said ADF Legal Counsel Travis Barham. “Students don’t check their constitutionally protected free speech at the campus gate. While touting commitments to ‘diversity’ and ‘open communications,’ Georgia Gwinnett College confines the speech of students to two ridiculously small speech zones and then censors the speech that occurs in those areas.”
Uzuegbunam during July and August that year tried to speak about his Christian faith – peacefully – on the Lawrenceville campus. But GGC officials stopped him, first because he wasn’t in a “speech zone” and then because they claimed it was “disorderly conduct.”
“Today’s college students will be tomorrow’s legislators, judges, commissioners, and voters,” said ADF Senior Counsel Casey Mattox. “That’s why it’s so important that public universities model the First Amendment values they are supposed to be teaching to students, and why it should disturb everyone that GGC and many other colleges are communicating to a generation that the Constitution doesn’t matter.”
In the new filing from the DOJ, officials explained, “It is in the interest of the United States to lend its voice to enforce First Amendment rights on campus. Additionally, in this case, the United States has a heightened interest because the plaintiffs’ First Amendment claims are intertwined with allegations of disparate treatment based on religion.
“Indeed, as the Supreme Court has explained, the exclusion of religious viewpoints from colleges and universities ‘risks the suppression of free speech and creative inquiry in one of the vital centers for the nation’s intellectual life.'”
It continued, “Moreoever, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion, and the attorney general is charged with vindicating this right.”
The college has moved to dismiss the case, but the DOJ said while it takes “no view” regarding whether the plaintiffs can prove their allegations, it did note that the college had stopped the speech, even after the proper permits were issued, because of the content of the message.
One officer said “the mere fact that someone complains about expression converts that expression into disorderly conduct,” the DOJ noted.
The government’s filing pointed out that it is inappropriate to treat religious speech differently from secular speech, and the college’s practices were not content-neutral.
The DOJ said plaintiffs alleged violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, through the school’s prohibition of their “fire and brimstone message,” while it did not in any way limit other speech with “offensive language,” “lewd” remarks, “vulgar” music and even religious expression by a different group.
“Plaintiffs factual allegations, if proven, would demonstrate that the ‘fire and brimstone’ prohibition referred to the content, specifically the viewpoint,” of the students’ speech, the government explained.
“It is firmly settled that under our Constitution the public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers,” it said.
Allowing listeners to complain and shut down speech is nothing more or less than an illegal “heckler’s veto,” the submission said.
The lawsuit asks that the speech be protected under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and requests an immediate suspension of college policies with a declaration they are unconstitutional.
Defendants are college President Stanley Preczewski, and other officials including Lois Richardson, Jim Fatzinger, Toams Jiminez, Aileen Dowell, Gene Ruffin, Catherine Downey and Terrance Schneider.
ADF Counsel Travis Barham said, “As the Department of Justice brief filed in this case affirms, students don’t lose their constitutionally protected right to free speech when they set foot on a college campus. While touting commitments to diversity and open communications, Georgia Gwinnet College confined the speech of students to two ridiculously small speech zones and then censored the speech that occurred in those areas. It is encouraging to see that the Department of Justice takes the constitutional rights of college and university students so seriously, and we hope that Georgia Gwinnett College will be held accountable for disregarding these freedoms.”