If you thought Chike Uzuegbunam’s recent Supreme Court victory put an end to college officials being able to violate their students’ constitutional rights and avoid the consequences…unfortunately, you would be wrong.
Here’s a quick recap of Chike’s case: He was stopped twice from publicly sharing his faith on campus at Georgia Gwinnett College. Officials first silenced Chike from speaking about his faith in a public area on campus, telling him to reserve one of the two tiny campus “speech zones” that were closed 90% of the week. Yet, when Chike began speaking during his reserved time in one of those zones, campus police ordered him to stop, saying someone had complained.
ADF filed a lawsuit on Chike’s behalf, and eventually the college made some changes to its speech policies. Because of that and the fact that Chike had graduated, the college argued it should be able to avoid accountability for violating Chike’s free speech rights. Unfortunately, two lower courts agreed.
But, thanks be to God, in March the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8–1 in favor of Chike, reaffirming that government officials should not get a free pass after violating our liberties.
Chike’s case was an important victory for free speech on college campuses, ensuring that college officials can be held accountable through nominal damages (a small money award that legally recognizes someone’s rights were violated). But, unfortunately, college officials still have other ways to avoid accountability.
Just ask Ashlyn Hoggard.
A Free Speech Violation on Campus
When Ashlyn was a student at Arkansas State University, she and another individual set up a table to recruit students to join a new campus chapter of Turning Point USA. That didn’t last long. Arkansas State officials called the campus police (who rolled up on the scene on their segways) and kicked them off the patio in front of the Student Union, threatening Ashlyn with a violation of the student code of conduct, citing the university’s speech policy.
The Arkansas State speech policy quarantined student speech to tiny speech zones making up 1 percent of campus, required advance permission to speak anywhere on campus, and gave officials free rein to grant or deny requests to speak.
Are you experiencing déjà vu? That’s because the speech policy that Chike challenged in court was eerily similar. Sadly, hundreds of public colleges and universities across the country have unconstitutional speech policies like this.
But the ADF Center for Academic Freedom is committed to challenging these policies. And, thanks be to God, we’re winning, securing over 400 victories against public colleges and universities nationwide.
We’re committed to doing so in Ashlyn’s case as well, as we represent her before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Another Supreme Court Case
In December 2017, ADF attorneys filed a lawsuit against university officials on Ashlyn’s behalf. Thankfully, in response to the lawsuit, the State of Arkansas enacted campus free-speech legislation known as the FORUM Act, which prohibits restrictive speech policies. This forced Arkansas State University to repeal the policies it used to censor Ashlyn.
This is great news!
But, much like in Chike’s situation, the officials responsible for those policies have not faced any repercussions. And they still haven’t acknowledged that they were wrong.
The good news is that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, which is a step below the U.S. Supreme Court, ruled that the university officials had violated Ashlyn’s First Amendment rights. The bad news, on the other hand, is that the court accepted the officials’ qualified-immunity defense—which shields government employees even when they commit illegal acts—and let them off the hook, holding that they might not have realized their speech policies were unconstitutional.
But officials at public colleges and universities have a duty to uphold the Constitution. Arkansas State University officials failed to do so. And they must be held responsible for that.
That’s why ADF has filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the Court to clarify that qualified immunity doesn’t prevent the judiciary from holding university officials accountable for their unconstitutional policies.
Public-university officials shouldn’t get to hide behind qualified immunity when they blatantly violate their students’ First Amendment rights.
As with its recent ruling in Chike’s favor, we’re hopeful that the Supreme Court will agree.
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