By Tom Intorcio
Of all places, universities are supposed to be free marketplaces of ideas. But Kennesaw State University (KSU) near Atlanta is missing the mark.
University officials there have banished student speech they deem “controversial” to “speech zones” in an effort to quarantine or suppress certain messages. That’s why Alliance Defending Freedom has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the school’s speech zone policies and practices.
Just ask Zach Bohannon, a KSU student and ADF client. Zach is majoring in business and serves as secretary of Ratio Christi, a registered student organization that seeks to “encourage and strengthen the faith of Christian students” through fellowship. The chapter seeks to bring the “Reason of Christ” and apologetics to key issues on campus. One of Zach’s duties is to apply for a “reservation request” when Ratio Christi sponsors an information table or activity.
While KSU touts “open, honest, and thoughtful intellectual inquiry” in its mission, its policies give administrators unlimited discretion to silence viewpoints that don’t track with their secular views.
Under KSU’s speech zone policy, administrators can send students to a speech zone comprising less than .08 percent of the 405-acre campus. In addition, the administrators can censor speech based on the school’s permit practices that require students like Zach to submit requests between three and 30 days in advance – without clear guidance on which deadline applies. The policies provide no written guidelines for officials, which gives them absolute power to grant, deny, or rewrite a student organization’s reservation request for any reason, including unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.
KSU enforced these policies against Ratio Christi at least twice.
In Feb. 2016, the club applied for a permit to host a pro-life display in “Zone 2,” a prime spot on the “Campus Green,” the main university quad. Ratio Christi chose not to reserve Zones 3 and 4 because they are not as centrally located, are not paved, and at that time of year, were quite muddy.
Instead of approving the request, Janice Malone, a KSU administrator, asked the club’s leaders to meet with her. She then explained that due to the “controversial” nature of its display, Ratio Christi could not reserve Zone 2. Instead, its event would be moved to the Zone 4. However, Malone said that if the club would remove its pro-life posters, she would upgrade them to Zone 2. As Ratio Christi was unwilling to have its pro-life message censored, it proceeded with Zone 4, but its efforts reached fewer students as a result.
In Sept. 2017, Ratio Christi sought to reserve space for another pro-life display. The permit request proposed a campus poll: “Should abortion remain legal?” The club intended to use the vote to spur conversation. Again, Ratio Christi applied for Zone 2, not 3 or 4.
On Oct. 10, another official, Rachel Patti, moved the reservation to Zones 3 and 4. This time however, she explained, “I did change your location to Zones 3/4 because that is our ‘free speech’ area… [and also] due to the nature of your information table.” She also explained that “controversial” speech can only take place in the “speech zone.” Once again, Ratio Christi complied, this time in Zones 3 and 4, where they encountered only a small group of visitors, deflating the event.
Contrast this with the special treatment received by the Kennesaw Pride Alliance.
In October last year, the university permitted this LGBT group to reserve all seven zones for its “Pride Day.” No “controversial” objection. Just a green light.
All our clients ask is for the same treatment.
“Kennesaw State’s speech zones are unconstitutional because the First Amendment exists precisely to protect speech that government officials think is controversial,” said ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer, Director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom. “Because today’s students will be tomorrow’s leaders and voters, universities should live by example in demonstrating the importance of our freedoms … instead of communicating to an entire generation that the Constitution doesn’t matter.”
KSU is not practicing what it preaches. Pro-life groups should have equal opportunity to share their views.
Sadly, KSU is not the only school in the Peachtree State with these practices. In December 2016, ADF filed suit against Georgia Gwinnett College on behalf of one of its students, a Christian, who was accused of disorderly conduct for speaking about Christ in an even smaller and more restrictive speech zone.
Find out how ADF is protecting the marketplace of ideas so that universities return to being “open, honest, and thoughtful” centers of learning.