In 2016, Georgia Gwinnett College officials told Chike Uzuegbunam when and where he could speak about his Christian faith with his peers, restricting him to two “speech zones” that made up less than 0.0015% of the campus. That’s equivalent to the size of a piece of notebook paper on a football field. Chike complied, but he was still told to stop sharing the Gospel yet again because campus police said someone had complained.
The college later changed its unconstitutional speech policies. Because of that and the fact that Chike graduated, two courts dismissed the case, letting Georgia Gwinnett College off the hook for denying Chike his basic right to peacefully share his views on campus.
Alliance Defending Freedom will be arguing this case at the U.S. Supreme Court next month.
I, too, had a university official tell me that I couldn’t speak freely on campus.
In the spring of 2017 at Fresno State University in California, I received permission to chalk pro-life messages on the campus sidewalks with my Students for Life group. Those positive, life-affirming messages included “Women need love, not abortion,” “Love both, choose life,” and “Heart beats 21 days after conception.”
But a public health professor, Greg Thatcher, didn’t approve of those messages and recruited several students from his 8 a.m. class to help him remove them. He told me that we could only share our views in the “speech zone” on campus, proudly and wrongly announcing on video that “college campuses are not free-speech areas” and that “free speech” included his right to erase the messages—even though the university approved our event.
I walked away feeling defeated. But, fortunately, that’s not the end of the story.
With ADF’s help, we sued Professor Thatcher. As part of a settlement agreement, the court ordered Thatcher never to interfere with our group’s activities again and to attend First Amendment training with an ADF attorney. He was required to pay almost $26,000 in attorneys’ fees and $1,000 each to me and my co-plaintiff.
Though the professor took away our right to free speech that day, it’s the implications of his actions that are far more concerning. He taught college students that censorship is free speech, that they should participate in that censorship, and that a college campus is no place for sharing pro-life views.
Thatcher and Georgia Gwinnett College officials share a troubling and misguided viewpoint: the idea that they can simply quarantine and suppress student speech if they disagree. In fact, this is a common viewpoint among college and university officials across the country.
But, thankfully, students and staff members are fighting back. ADF’s Center for Academic Freedom has secured over 435 victories on campuses across the nation.
When government officials aren’t held accountable for their unconstitutional actions, they can repeatedly abuse their authority. Too often, they continue to violate the First Amendment when the courts are no longer watching them. For example, ADF has had to take legal action against Georgia Tech and Chemeketa Community College multiple times. ADF even filed seven First Amendment lawsuits against the University of Wisconsin.
Thankfully, in my case, Thatcher was held accountable for his actions.
And ultimately what was intended to silence a group of people had the opposite effect. After publishing the video of my interaction with Thatcher online, it quickly went viral. The very message that he erased was blasted out to hundreds of thousands of viewers and even gained national media attention.
This experience also helped intensify my passion for pro-life advocacy. Following our legal victory, I led numerous successful pro-life events on campus. Our group grew from about three active members to over 25 the following school year. We actively fought against pro-abortion legislation in California, traveled to spread the pro-life message internationally , and helped save at least one life from abortion.
But this fact still holds true: Students shouldn’t have to take their university officials to court to protect their most basic First Amendment rights. When they do, courts should not send the message that those violations do not matter.
Chike still hasn’t been given the justice that I was fortunate enough to receive. But I’m hopeful that the Supreme Court will hold his college officials accountable and reinforce that all violations of our priceless freedoms matter.
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