A Georgia college’s suppression of a student’s effort to share his Christian faith is an example of the First Amendment violations occurring at America’s public colleges and universities, according to a leading religious liberty organization.
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) has filed suit against Georgia Gwinnett College (GGC) on behalf of Chike Uzuegbunam, who alleged school officials required him to seek permission three days in advance before speaking and limited his speech to two small areas on campus. After he agreed to the restrictions, GGC staff ordered him to stop speaking about Christianity in those zones because they considered it “disorderly conduct,” according to ADF.
Uzuegbunam’s case is one of many in which ADF is representing students or student groups whose rights to speech and association are being violated on campuses, organization lawyers told a congressional subcommittee in written testimony in early April.
Russell Moore, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s religious freedom entity, decried the trend.
“Exiling religious belief is just as bad on a college campus as it is in the courtroom,” said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). “Constraining conviction to a set place for a set amount of time is not a compromise; it’s a denial of religious freedom.
“It’s a tragedy for higher education to stifle dialogue and conversation like this,” Moore told Baptist Press in written comments. “My hope is that students of all religions and no religion would be encouraged to bring their beliefs with them into universities, rather than intimidated into silence.”
ADF told members of Congress the policy and practice of GGC is not unusual.
“The state of the First Amendment on public universities and colleges is not well,” ADF lawyers Casey Mattox and Caleb Dalton wrote in testimony to a House of Representatives subcommittee April 4. “The status quo at most institutions substantially restricts free speech and association and teaches students that government censorship is the norm, not the exception.”
Public universities and colleges typically restrict First Amendment rights in four ways, they said:
- “Speech zones” limit free expression to small, often out-of-the-way areas on campus.
- Vague harassment policies chill free speech by intimidating students who fear they will be punished.
- Administrators are given unlimited authority to favor some speech and inhibit other speech.
- Non-discrimination policies prevent religious and political groups on campus from choosing their leaders based on shared beliefs.
“Although public universities are supposed to be marketplaces of ideas, they are far too often anything but,” Dalton said in an April 4 written release. “A robust exchange of competing ideas and philosophies is essential to liberty and progress, but today’s campuses have transformed the marketplace of ideas into the intellectual vacuum of government intolerance.”
GGC – a state school with about 12,000 students in Lawrenceville, which is in the northeast metro Atlanta area – sought to restrict Uzuegbunam’s free expression in July, when he began seeking to evangelize his fellow students, ADF reported. He distributed literature on a plaza outside the school library without harassing others, according to the ADF lawsuit filed in December.
A GGC official stopped Uzuegbunam, who was told school policy forbade him from such activity outside the campus speech zones, which are open from two to four hours each weekday and constitute less than .0015 percent of the school’s property, ADF said.
In August, Uzuegbunam reserved time in a speech zone and shared the gospel of Jesus without amplification while standing on a stool, according to the suit. A friend distributed literature while Uzuegbunam spoke. After about 20 minutes, a school official told Uzuegbunam he must stop because he was speaking publicly rather than one-on-one. His speech “constituted ‘disorderly conduct’ because it was disturbing the peace and tranquility of individuals who were congregating in that area,” according to ADF’s suit.
Uzuegbunam said the school has permitted other speakers and events to use amplification inside and outside the speech zones without being stopped.
The school has violated Uzuegbunam’s free speech and religious free exercise rights under the First Amendment and his due process and equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment, ADF said.
In the wake of Uzuegbunam’s suit, Gerald Harris, editor of The Christian Index, the newspaper for Georgia Baptists, questioned why Gov. Nathan Deal continues to oppose religious liberty legislation as the state government continues to restrict Christians from sharing the gospel. A Republican, Deal vetoed such a bill last year and has said he opposes its revival this year, Harris said.
The written testimony by ADF’s Mattox and Dalton was submitted to the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention. Story edited by BR staff.)