There’s no doubt that Georgia Gwinnett College officials violated their students’ First Amendment rights.
Chike Uzuegbunam can attest to that fact, after being repeatedly silenced on campus.
First, college officials silenced him because he had not reserved one of the two tiny “speech zones” on campus before engaging in public expression. And “tiny” is an understatement. Open only about 10 percent of the week, these zones were so small that if the entire campus were the size of a football field, the zones would have been the size of one piece of paper.
Then, when Chike complied—reserving a speech zone and getting officials to approve his speech—he was silenced yet again. This time, college officials told him that someone had complained about his attempts to share the Gospel. And under campus policy, making others feel “uncomfortable” (whatever that means) is disorderly conduct. Later, officials even wrongly claimed that presenting the Gospel represents “fighting words,” speech that the First Amendment doesn’t protect.
But unless the U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear Chike’s case, which Alliance Defending Freedom filed on his behalf, these Georgia Gwinnett officials won’t face any consequences for violating his rights.
The district court dismissed Chike’s case after Georgia Gwinnett officials changed their unconstitutional policies in an attempt to avoid the consequences of their actions. Then the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld this ruling—depriving Chike of the justice he deserves.
The message from these college officials is loud and clear: “Don’t bother defending your freedom. We know how to game the legal system.”
But this isn’t just happening to Chike. In an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to hear Chike’s case, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) explains that this is a common practice at public colleges and universities:
[C]olleges and universities across the country routinely infringe students’ First Amendment rights. Vague and overbroad campus speech policies abound. These policies grant campus administrators discretion to suppress and punish a stunning range of speech deemed controversial, inconvenient, or simply unwanted…. Compounding the problem is the propensity of colleges and universities to re-institute speech restrictions after executing settlement agreements that require the restrictions to be eliminated.
FIRE is one of several diverse organizations—including atheist, Jewish, Catholic, and Muslim groups as well as student groups, legal scholars, and academic freedom experts—that filed friend-of-the-court briefs urging the Supreme Court to hold college and university officials accountable for their misconduct.
Here are five quotes from these briefs explaining why the Supreme Court should stop government officials from ignoring constitutional violations.
1. American Humanist Association
A society of ordered liberty demands that government be held accountable for violating citizens’ constitutional rights.
Repeat violations of students’ First Amendment rights are less likely when students have the ability to litigate their claims to judgment the first time around. Such judgments … create precedent that clarifies the law and deters colleges and universities from re-instituting unlawful policies.
3. The Islam & Religious Freedom Action Team of the Religious Freedom Institute
[T]he Eleventh Circuit decided that after the school withdrew its policy, Chike’s claim no longer mattered since he did not suffer quantifiable financial harm beyond the injury of having his rights infringed. That is wrong. Our constitutional freedoms are priceless, and the government should not be able to violate them without consequence simply by changing its ways before litigation concludes.
4. Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty
[College officials] cannot escape review by tactically changing their policies prospectively…. [F]ree speech restrictions and other deprivations of basic constitutional rights inflict real injuries, even if those injuries are not precisely quantifiable or financial in nature.
5. Young Americans for Liberty
Individuals suffer concrete injury when constitutional rights, such as those under the First Amendment, are infringed.
Public colleges and universities must face consequences for violating their students’ rights. They cannot simply change their speech policies going forward in response to a lawsuit, without also making things right with the people they already injured. Otherwise, they have no incentive to proactively protect their students’ First Amendment rights—which is their duty.
As Americans for Prosperity put it: “Why do today what you can always do tomorrow—especially when there are no damages at stake?”
That’s why ADF is asking the Supreme Court to deliver justice for Chike and make it clear that public universities cannot violate the First Amendment rights of their students and get off scot-free.
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