Supreme Court to Hear Case of College Students Silenced from Sharing the Gospel
Chike Uzuegbunam graduated from college, but he hasn’t been able to fully move on.
For more than three years now, Chike has been involved in a lawsuit against his alma mater, Georgia Gwinnett College. And, now, the U.S. Supreme Court has a chance to give him the justice he deserves.
Let’s take a look at his case and what got him here in the first place.
Who: Chike Uzuegbunam and Joseph Bradford
Chike truly lives out the call of Mark 16:15: “Go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel to the whole creation.”
He is passionate about sharing the Good News with those around him. So, after Chike started attending Georgia Gwinnett College, he saw it as his new mission field.
To Chike, this is the most loving thing that you can do for someone else—to share the Good News that Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose again so that we can have eternal life with Him. But college officials did not see it that way.
Instead, they saw Chike’s message of grace and hope as “disorderly conduct.” And they silenced him from sharing the Gospel on campus.
But for Chike, this is not something he can stay quiet about. That’s why he reached out to Alliance Defending Freedom for help and later another student, Joseph Bradford, joined the case.
What: Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski
This all started in July 2016 when Chike was handing out pamphlets in a plaza on campus and talking about the Gospel with interested students as they passed. Not long after he began, some college officials approached Chike. They informed him that he was not allowed to distribute materials or talk to other students about his beliefs unless he had reserved a time in the campus “speech zone.”
Georgia Gwinnett College had two separate speech zones – but don’t be fooled into thinking the College broadly encouraged free expression. Combined, the two spaces made up about 0.0015% of campus. If the entire campus were the size of a football field, these “speech zones”—the only places students could exercise their First Amendment rights—would be the size of a piece of paper. On top of that, they were only open for student use for 10% of the week—just 18 hours on weekdays and closed on the weekends.
Despite having already been silenced once, Chike followed all the rules, reserved a time, and even received approval from college officials for the literature he intended to distribute. But when he began sharing his faith in the speech zone during the time he had reserved, campus police approached him. The officers told him to stop speaking because they had received a complaint.
Under the Student Code of Conduct, Chike’s peaceful speech was classified as “disorderly conduct,” defined as any speech “which disturbs the peace and/or comfort of person(s).” So Chike was not allowed to speak his message anywhere. After seeing how officials shut down Chike, Joseph decided not to speak on campus at all.
Because public officials silenced these two students on their campus, ADF filed a lawsuit on their behalf.
This was an open-and-shut case involving clear First Amendment violations. But Georgia Gwinnett College doubled down. In its first motion to dismiss the case, the college said that Chike’s preaching of the Gospel “arguably rose to the level of ‘fighting words,’” a category of speech the First Amendment does not protect. If college officials can ban students from preaching the Gospel on campus by claiming that it amounts to “fighting words,” then government officials can do the same elsewhere. This should concern us all.
The college eventually abandoned this argument and amended its free speech policy to allow for speech in any outdoor area of campus—consistent with the U.S. Constitution. While this is great news, it doesn’t change the fact that college officials violated Chike’s right to free speech by silencing him twice and intimidated Joseph into silence. And the lawsuit continues so that Chike and Joseph can get the justice they deserve.
Where: Lawrenceville, Georgia
Georgia Gwinnett College is located in Lawrenceville, Georgia.
Why: The only permit students need to speak freely on campus is the First Amendment.
Free speech is not free if it is limited to a tiny area on campus, requires a permit, and can be classified as “disorderly conduct” or “fighting words” at the whim of college officials. The First Amendment guarantees a right to free speech, and college officials everywhere—including at Georgia Gwinnett College—should be in the business of upholding and cherishing that right, not silencing it.
The Bottom Line
Countless universities have adopted and enforced speech zones and speech codes like those that Georgia Gwinnett College enforced in this case. That is part of the reason that ADF has over 400 victories against public universities across the country. And far too often, once students try to hold university official accountable, they do just what Georgia Gwinnett officials did here: change the policies and ignore how they mistreated students. The Supreme Court should not allow that to continue.
Today’s college students are tomorrow’s voters, legislators, and judges. If they are being taught that the correct way to deal with speech you disagree with is to shut it down, they will carry that understanding with them once they leave campus. To preserve free speech for us all, we must protect free speech on college campuses so that students learn to respectfully interact with diverse viewpoints. And when our constitutional freedoms are violated, courts should say so, even when officials back down. Otherwise, very little stops them from doing so again.