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Speak Freely

Free Speech Heads To Supreme Court, As ADF Represents Students Silenced For Speaking Their Faith

By Karen Kurtz


It’s a command delivered by sullen teens, ill-mannered businesspeople, even generally good-hearted people on a bad day.

Shut up.

Don't talk about your conservative views. Don't tell me about your faith. Don't invite a speaker I don't like to your event. Don’t say, write, text, or post anything I may not agree with.

Just. Shut. Up.

Public universities are bound by the First Amendment. But time and again — and now, more than ever — university administrators find countless ways to shut down student speech.

“On campuses today, the dominant idea is that if I don’t like what you’re saying, I have the right to shut you down,” says Travis Barham, deputy director for the ADF Center for Academic Freedom (CAF). “I have the right to silence you because I have a right not to be offended.”

Due to the leftist tilt of most universities, it’s usually the conservative and Christian perspectives that are repressed, mocked, or silenced, he says. But a campus should be a marketplace of ideas, where views are shared, discussed, and debated — not squelched.

The Center for Academic Freedom consistently fights for that ideal, securing over 430 victories for campus free speech since its founding in 2006.

“We’ve had great success over the years in defending free speech,” says Barham, who joined CAF shortly after its founding. “The battle is by no means over. But when a student takes a stand, usually we see victory. The Lord blesses our efforts, usually, in some fashion or another.”

Those victories can have widespread effects.

“This is one of the strategic mission fields within our culture,” Barham says. “All of our future leaders, by and large, are going to come through university campuses. If we can make a difference there, that will have long-term benefits for the country, not just the campuses.”

Those long-term benefits are secured one case at a time, as a student finds the courage to make a stand. This story highlights four of those courageous students: Amelia, Brian, and Ellie, who have celebrated recent victories, and Chike, whose case is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.

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"On campuses today, the dominant idea is that if I don't like what you're saying, I have the right to shut you down."

-Travis Barham

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Amelia

All the trouble started with a seemingly benign request.

“I heard you’re getting Love Saxa back together,” a friend said, referring to the Georgetown University club Amelia Irvine had jump-started that semester, after its previous leader and many of its members graduated the year before. “Would you like to write an opinion piece about it?”

Amelia Portrait

Amelia Irvine

The friend, an editor at Georgetown’s student newspaper, offered simple guidelines: “Really anything you want, just presenting the group and reintroducing it.”

Amelia, a junior, liked the idea. The fall semester had just begun, and she was working to recruit a few freshmen to Love Saxa, a campus group dedicated to sexual integrity and healthy relationships.

She was well aware of the hookup culture that characterized her campus. But she also knew there were others like her, who shared the view that sex should be saved for marriage. She hoped to draw students who would read her article and realize they weren’t alone in their beliefs.

“A lot of people start college and assume they’re the only ones who have these conservative Christian beliefs — the only ones who aren’t hooking up with people, who aren’t watching pornography,” Amelia says. “I wanted to say, ‘Actually, no, there’s a lot of us who think this way.’”

Her article, “Confessions of a College Virgin,” appeared in the paper a week later — and quickly ignited a storm on campus. Amelia expected to be mocked for her view that sex should be saved for marriage. Instead, readers latched on to a sentence toward the end of the piece, stating the club’s defense of traditional marriage.

“That’s when all the craziness started,” she says. “Lots of Facebook comments, lots of Facebook posts.” For several weeks, the group was shamed in the student paper. Some readers couldn’t believe that anyone, in 2017, would be opposed to same-sex marriage.

Students also attacked Amelia personally, calling her “the B word” under their breath or shouting “I love sex!” when they spotted her on campus.

“It escalated pretty quickly, and more than I expected,” Amelia says.

Calling Love Saxa “homophobic” and “archaic,” LGBTQ student activists filed a petition demanding that Georgetown derecognize the club. Amelia contacted ADF as soon as she learned that the Student Activities Commission planned to hold a formal hearing to discuss the club’s future.

“The attorneys did a really good job of helping me think through my arguments,” she says. They also worked with her to sift through media requests, and sent well-timed notes of encouragement when she was feeling overwhelmed. Amelia also credits them with sending a “scary lawyer letter” to the university, pointing out its wrongdoing in threatening the club’s existence.

The hearing was four hours, lasting past midnight, and drew a crowd so large it had to be moved from a boardroom to a large auditorium next door — and even then, onlookers spilled into the hallway. Amelia and the club’s vice president were hammered with questions about the club’s mission and activities, and about their personal beliefs.

“It was very intense,” says Amelia. “It’s one of the few times in my life that I’ve very much felt spiritual warfare going on. There was a certain darkness around the whole thing. But there were also so many people praying for us.”

The commission voted 8–4 to take no action against Love Saxa. Following the hearing, students sometimes turned up at the club’s events just to mock the group or make rude comments, but the harassment soon died down.

But the next semester, Amelia learned that two donations had been sent to the university to support Love Saxa and were misdirected to LGBTQ groups instead. The gifts had come from alumni and parents who had learned about Amelia’s article and the resulting backlash, and wanted to support the club.

Again, Amelia called on ADF, which helped Love Saxa reclaim the donations.

Three years later, she is grateful for what she learned by standing up for her beliefs.

“Growing up, you are always told, ‘One day there will be a time when you will stand up for your Christian beliefs and people are going to hate you for it,’” she says. “And even though this was hardly an extreme, for me it was an experience of a little social persecution and knowing that I can handle it — all things through Christ.”

After the ordeal, Amelia reconnected with a high school teacher who expressed both admiration and surprise at her courageous stand. “Amelia,” he said, “when you were in school, if I were to think, ‘Who’s going to go out and rally the troops?’ you wouldn’t have been in the top 10.”

“That’s the truth,” she says, laughing. “But I was in a situation where I felt absolutely led to go forward, and I felt equipped in that moment to do what I needed to do,” she says.

“And I learned that I’m capable of being a voice.”

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"A lot of people start college and assume they're the only ones who have these conservative Christian beliefs."

-Amelia Irvine

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Brian

Brian Blevins was quietly contemplating suicide when a friend, recognizing signs of depression, invited him to church and suggested he start reading the Bible.

Brian was skeptical. He’d gone to Sunday school as a child, but his family had mostly stopped going to church — turning up for Christmas and Easter services, but nothing more. By now he was practically an atheist.

But he was willing to give the friend’s suggestion a try.

Brian Portrait

Brian Blevins

His high school graduation was approaching, and he’d found himself with no direction, and no hope for the years ahead.

“I was thinking that, as humans, everything we do has no ultimate purpose,” he says. “That made me go, OK, why am I going to even live? Life is full of suffering; life is full of challenges. I might as well just end it early.”

He’d been thinking about that for a while, and had even written a suicide note.

Instead, he picked up a Bible. He read quickly, absorbing the words, measuring what he was learning against things he already knew.

“I got to Exodus, and I read about the laws and how strict the punishments are,” he says. “If you don’t do this, you’re going to die. If you touch the wrong thing or say the wrong thing, you’re going to die. It’s the death penalty all over the place.”

He compared that to the Gospel’s message of grace and forgiveness. “And I’m thinking those two don’t mix,” he says. “Either God is a tyrant, or He's a gracious, loving father.”

Praying for the first time, Brian asked God to prove that He existed, and to show him what kind of God He was. It was a Friday night. By Sunday morning, he had his answer.

He’d started attending church a few weeks before, and this Sunday he listened as the congregation joined voices in a praise song. “There was a long stretch of the song just saying, ‘He loves us,’ over and over again,” Brian recalls. In what he describes as a “face-to-face encounter with God,” he realized the words were personal.

“The impression I got was, ‘I love you, I love you, I love you,’” he says. “Things I’d been dealing with — fear, depression, everything else — just peeled away, one layer at a time.

“From there, I couldn’t deny.”

He started college at University of Colorado, Colorado Springs (UCCS) that fall, and soon joined a group that supported his growing faith. Ratio Christi, a Christian apologetics organization, seeks to defend the Christian faith and explain how the Bible applies to cultural, ethical, and political issues.

Brian was immediately drawn to the group’s intellectual focus. At Ratio Christi, he found like-minded friends, as well as a place to explore, discuss, and debate viewpoints and beliefs. He also found help for times of spiritual drought.

“There are moments where it feels like God is absent,” he says. “Especially in college, where you’re surrounded by a culture that says what you believe is nonsense.” Apologetics, he says, propped up his faith, teaching him to think critically about the things he believed.

Eventually, Brian became Ratio Christi’s president. But the group was small and dwindling, struggling to draw new members because it had been unable to obtain registered status from UCCS. Without that designation, Ratio Christi couldn’t reserve rooms on campus, hold events there, or advertise its meetings. But the university refused to register Ratio Christi as an official club, because the group requires its leaders to be professing Christians.

“I thought it was absurd,” Brian says. “You wouldn’t expect a registered Democrat to be the leader of a college Republicans’ chapter. That would raise a ton of red flags as to their motives and, of course, their qualifications.”

The group spent almost three years applying and reapplying for registered status, running into one roadblock after another. After ADF filed a lawsuit on Ratio Christi’s behalf, UCCS updated its policies to ensure that any student club may require its leaders to hold beliefs consistent with the group’s mission.

Ratio Christi is now able to meet and hold events on campus, and the club’s visibility has grown as a result. Following a fall 2019 event with biochemist and author Michael Behe, the club gained three new members. Eight others expressed interest in the group after a recent club fair.

Now graduated, Brian has stayed involved with Ratio Christi, grateful for the role it played in his early years as a Christian. “There's no other group that does what Ratio Christi does,” he says. “It's entirely unique from the apologetics aspect of it.”

For Brian, that was crucial.

“My faith saved my life from suicide, and apologetics has saved my faith.”

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"There are moments where it feels like God is absent --especially in college, where you're surrounded by a culture that says what you believe is nonsense."

-Brian Bevins

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Ellie

Ellie Wittman came to expect the vandalism that occurred every fall, after her campus group set up its annual pro-life display.

The Cemetery of the Innocents was a tidy arrangement of small white crosses on the Miami University of Ohio Hamilton campus, symbolizing lives lost to abortion. Ellie, president of the campus Students for Life group, loved the peaceful display and its commemoration of unborn children.

“It immediately signals to people, ‘This is death. This is something that should be mourned.’”

Not everyone agreed. Vandals kicked over the crosses or ripped them from the ground, sometimes repeatedly, during the one to two weeks the Cemetery was on display. Once Ellie’s group found many of the crosses stuffed in a nearby trash can.

“It gets vandalized every year,” she says. “I hate to say it, but it’s kind of expected.”

Ellie Portrait

Ellie Wittman

What she didn’t expect was resistance from the university itself.

After requesting permission for the display in 2017, a Student Activities administrator told Ellie her group would have to post warning signs around the campus to alert students to the content of the display. The administrator called the Cemetery “polarizing” and feared that it would cause “emotional trauma” for some who viewed it.

Ellie considered setting up the display as planned and posting the “trigger warnings” that were now required. “We really want to reach women,” she reasoned. “We want to reach people who are pro-choice.”

But she knew the warning signs would prevent many of those people — the ones her group most wanted to reach — from viewing the display. Her regional Students for Life coordinator put her in touch with ADF, which steered her in a different direction.

“This is blatantly unconstitutional,” Barham told her. “We can actually sue your school for this."

The underlying problem was the approval process for campus exhibits, which allowed administrators to deny permits for any reason, including unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination. University officials had not demanded trigger warnings in the past for displays supporting transgender rights or displays against domestic violence.

At first, Ellie was reluctant to pursue a lawsuit. Would her grades suffer? Would her professors retaliate against her? Barham assured her that those repercussions were unlikely. And there would be more value in the long run, he told her, to forego the display that year and fight the unconstitutional policy instead.

“If you are able to win this lawsuit and change this policy, this is going to last forever,” she remembers Barham telling her. “This will be long-lasting for every student that follows you, because you don’t want to keep running into this year after year. You don’t want anyone to run into this year after year.”

She was convinced.

“It was such a better return on investment than setting up the display and being shut down by the university because we didn’t do what they said,” she says. Four months later, the university agreed to revise its policies to respect the free speech of all students, regardless of their viewpoint.

Ellie encountered none of the harassment she’d feared, and in fact received support from unexpected sources, including classmates who didn’t share her political views. “This is great for everybody, because it’s a universal policy,” one classmate told her. “This isn’t going to discriminate against one group or the other.”

But it was the support she received from ADF that made the most lasting impression.

She’d never heard of ADF until Students for Life put her in touch with the ministry. Neither had her parents, she discovered when she talked to them about the possibility of a lawsuit. They shared her initial reluctance.

“I don’t think they envisioned their college student suing their school, so they were a little bit uneasy about it,” she said. “But we researched ADF, and it looked like a really solid organization."

As a client, she was grateful for how much her attorneys handled for her. “ADF takes the reins when it comes to all the litigation, so that you’re able to keep living your life without having to worry about all the legal matters,” she says. “I think that was just really admirable.”

It wasn’t long before the thought hit her: “I want to work for this organization."

Three years later, that desire became a reality. In June, Ellie joined ADF as a media relations specialist for the Center for Academic Freedom, providing support for students fighting free speech battles much like her own.

She is certain she was called to this work, beginning with her first interactions with ADF.

“It’s so cool,” she marvels. “It was clearly the hand of God in my life, guiding me this way. I was planning to go into politics, but didn’t know where.”

Instead, “three years later, here I am.”

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"It was clearly the hand of God in my life, guiding me this way."

-Ellie Wittman

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Chike

When Chike Uzuegbunam started college, God changed the trajectory of his life. 

Chike grew up in a Christian home. He went to church and believed God was real, but he didn’t understand how that impacted his life. “I saw Christ as a historical figure — pretty much like Abraham Lincoln or Alexander the Great,” he says.

His perspective changed when he enrolled in Georgia Gwinnett College and attended a campus Bible study, where members of the group came alongside him and walked him through Scripture line by line.

Something clicked. Suddenly, Chike understood the personal nature of the Gospel and the salvation that was available to him through Christ.

Chike Portrait

Chike Uzuegbunam

“I realized that what God had done He had done for me,” he says. “My view of Jesus Christ changed dramatically. He went from being an ordinary guy in the past to — now He’s everything."

Chike couldn’t keep that Good News to himself. 

He set out across the sprawling Georgia Gwinnett campus between classes, looking for opportunities to share the message that had changed his life. But college officials were not so enthusiastic about his newfound passion to tell others about his faith. 

He was handing out pamphlets and talking about his faith in an outdoor campus area when a college official stopped him. The official told him he had to reserve one of two speech zones the college had designated for students who wished to engage in free speech. The speech zones amounted to a sidewalk and a patio that made up far less than 1% of the campus — the equivalent of a piece of paper on a football field.

Chike did as he was told. He applied for permission, submitted the pamphlets for review, and reserved a time in one of the tiny speech zones. But when he started sharing the Gospel in the speech zone during his designated time, he was stopped again. 

Someone had complained, campus police told him, making him guilty of “disorderly conduct.” He was ordered to stop, and threatened with disciplinary action if he continued to speak about his faith. In addition to speech zones, the college also had a speech code, which said that no one could say anything that “disturbs the peace and/or comfort of person(s).”

“Well, that defeats the whole purpose of the First Amendment,” Chike observed, knowing that free speech means being able to say things others might not want to hear. “I tried to be reasonable, and I was really trying to be very cordial. But they shut me down.”

He tried to weigh this against the speech that was allowed, thinking of the loud, pulsing music that often reverberated across the campus from the courtyard. “The entire campus would be shaking from music that was not wholesome,” he says. “And then I go out there in a very calm, civil way, and I get shut down.”

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"For this to happen in Georgia, I would say the buckle of the Bible belt -- it made me realize that the freedom to engage in unpopular speech is quickly being eroded in America."

-Chike Uzuegbunam

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Chike knew he had to do something. So he reached out to ADF, which filed a lawsuit against Georgia Gwinnett College on his behalf. 

College officials argued at first that speech sharing religious beliefs was not protected by the Constitution. Later, they adjusted their policies in response to the lawsuit — but they did nothing to address the way they had violated Chike’s free speech rights. There was no apology, no admission of wrongdoing.

After waiting a year to rule, a federal court dismissed the case because the school had changed its policies and Chike had graduated by that time. A federal court of appeals agreed. But the college shouldn’t get a free pass, says Barham.

“They want to walk away and say, ‘Well, we changed the policy, and therefore what happened to Chike doesn’t matter,’” he says. “And that’s not right.”

When courts don’t step in and hold government officials accountable for violating someone’s constitutional rights, he explains, that inaction enables the government to violate someone else’s rights in the future.

Chike’s case is now before the U.S. Supreme Court, providing another chance for him to obtain justice. For Chike, the case is less about the violation of his own rights than it is about the larger implications.

“For this to happen in Georgia, I would say the buckle of the Bible belt — it made me realize that the freedom to engage in unpopular speech is quickly being eroded in America,” he says. “This case is an opportunity for us to fight back and for [the government] to stop overreaching on the First Amendment.”

For Barham, the nature of this particular case makes it especially rewarding.

“It’s exciting that this case is all about proclaiming the Gospel on campus,” he says. “ADF exists to keep the doors open for the spread of the Gospel, and here we are at the Supreme Court defending a man’s right to present the Gospel on campus.

“You can’t get better than that.”

Sarah Kramer also contributed to this story.

 

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