Victory! Supreme Court Rules for College Student Silenced from Sharing the Gospel
After Chike Uzuegbunam graduated from college, he wasn’t able to move on fully.
For more than four years, Chike was involved in a lawsuit against his alma mater, Georgia Gwinnett College. And in 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of Chike, giving him the justice he deserves.
Let’s take a look at his case and what got him there in the first place.
Who is 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 Georgia Gwinnett College, 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 and rose again so that we can have eternal life with Him.
But college officials stopped him from publicly sharing his faith as he desired. They silenced him twice while he was sharing the Gospel in a public area on campus.
This wasn’t something Chike could stay quiet about. That’s why he reached out to Alliance Defending Freedom for help.
Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski
It 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 began, some college 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 a campus “speech zone.”
Georgia Gwinnett College had two speech zones, but don’t be fooled into thinking the college broadly encouraged free expression. Combined, the two spaces made up about 0.0015 percent of campus. If the entire campus were the size of a football field, these “speech zones”—the only places students could exercise their First Amendment rights—would be the size of a piece of notebook paper. 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.
Despite having already been silenced once, Chike did what the officials asked. He reserved a time and even received approval from college officials for the literature he wanted to distribute. But when he began sharing his faith in the speech zone during the time he had reserved, campus police approached him. The officers took his ID card and told him to stop speaking because someone had complained.
According to these officers, Chike violated the speech code in the Student Code of Conduct, which allowed the college to stop speech if someone complained. As a result of the college's policies, Chike was not allowed to speak his message anywhere.
Because public officials silenced Chike on campus, ADF filed a lawsuit on his behalf.
This case involved clear First Amendment violations. But Georgia Gwinnett College doubled down. First, the college argued that Chike peacefully sharing his religious beliefs should receive no constitutional protection. Eventually, it abandoned this argument and amended its speech policies to allow for speech in any outdoor area of campus—consistent with the U.S. Constitution. But then it argued that its officials should get a free pass for how they treated Chike.
Because of the changed policies and the fact that Chike had by this time graduated, two courts dismissed the case. But that doesn’t change the fact that college officials had violated the Constitution by silencing Chike twice.
That's why ADF asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear this case.
- July 2016: Chike sought to share his Christian beliefs on Georgia Gwinnett College’s campus but was stopped by campus officials. Chike was stopped a second time in August after reserving a time in the designated “speech zone.”
- December 2016: Alliance Defending Freedom filed a complaint with the District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Atlanta Division on behalf of Chike.
- May 2018: Based on the school’s revised speech policies and the fact that Chike had graduated, the district court dismissed Chike’s case. ADF appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.
- July 2019: The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling against Chike. The following January, after the Eleventh Circuit rejected requests to rehear the case, ADF appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
- January 2021: Oral arguments were held before the Supreme Court. ADF General Counsel Kristen Waggoner argued that “changing unconstitutional policies is an important first step. But policy changes alone do not remedy the harm done to those whose rights were violated by the government.”
- March 2021: The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that government officials can be held accountable and should not get a free pass when they violate constitutionally protected freedoms.
- March 2022: Georgia Gwinnett College officials agreed to settle the case. Georgia Gwinnett College will pay nominal damages and attorneys’ fees totaling more than $800,000.
- June 2022: The settlement was finalized and fulfilled, and the case concluded.
The Supreme Court made clear that our government officials have a duty to protect our rights, and when they violate them, there should be consequences.
The First Amendment guarantees a right to free speech, and college officials everywhere—including at Georgia Gwinnett College—should be in the business of upholding and cherishing that right.
And when college officials violate students' rights, they should face the consequences. When courts don't step in and hold government officials accountable for trampling someone's constitutional rights, it enables and encourages the government to violate someone else's rights in the future.
The bottom line
Countless universities have adopted and enforced speech zones and speech codes like those that Georgia Gwinnett College enforced in this case. That is one of the reasons why ADF has over 400 victories against public universities across the country. And far too often, once students try to hold university officials accountable, they do just what Georgia Gwinnett officials did here: change the policies and ignore how they mistreated students. Thankfully, the Supreme Court put a stop to this.
What happened to Chike Uzuegbunam when he tried to speak on Georgia Gwinnett College’s campus:
Chike Uzuegbunam on what inspired him to share the gospel on campus:
ADF team members contributed to the writing and publication of this article.