All I wanted was to share with other students the faith that has changed my life.
I was a junior at Georgia Gwinnett College, and I had some tracts that explained the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I was standing in an open area of campus, offering them to any students who expressed interest.
But college officials stopped me and said I couldn’t distribute literature because I wasn’t in one of the two speech zones the college specifically designated for students wishing to speak freely. It was difficult to find those miniscule speech zones: they only made up 0.0015% of the campus and were only open for about 10% of the school week.
Even those microscopic areas were off-limits, the policies said, unless I had applied to reserve them and unless administrators had okayed the materials I was distributing. So I made a reservation and submitted my literature for approval. That approval was granted. But I had hardly begun speaking and handing out the materials before college security officers stopped me.
Why? “Somebody” had complained. That made me guilty, officers said, of “disorderly conduct.”
It turned out that the college didn’t just have speech zones; it also had a speech code, which said that no one could say anything — there, in the open air, on free American soil, even in the speech zone — that “disturbs the peace and/or comfort of person(s).”
The essence of free speech is the ability to tell people things they do not want to hear. And that is especially true today when almost anything is practically guaranteed to offend someone’s “comfort.” The college’s policies eliminated the heart of the Constitution’s First Amendment: freedom of religion and freedom of speech.
That disconnect was something my attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom impressed on college administrators. Trying to end the lawsuit, those administrators changed their policies but left it unclear where students could speak. Interestingly, this remained true until I graduated and was no longer around to speak.
It wasn’t until then that a federal district court ruled on my case. It decided that, since I had now graduated, and the college had changed its policies, there was really no point in holding administrators accountable for violating my constitutionally protected freedoms. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit later agreed with that ruling.
But my rights were violated — a fact that no court has yet seriously addressed. My case deserves a decision declaring that the college’s officials violated my constitutional rights, not only for my own sake, but for all the other students who are likely to run into the same administrative brick wall I did. If college officials are free to create unconstitutional restrictions, revising them only if and when they get caught, and then to shrug and walk away scot-free, my situation is simply going to play out over and over again at Gwinnett and on other campuses.
Something the state attorney general said, in defending Gwinnett officials, convinces me this is true. He said that when I shared the basic principles of Christianity — that Jesus died to pay for our sins — those were “fighting words.” That’s absurd; “fighting words” are designed to incite violence (so the First Amendment doesn’t protect them). If these are “fighting words” for me, then they are also “fighting words” when presented every week in every church in our great country.
This highlights another problem with the speech zones and codes. College officials didn’t really care about where I was standing. They just didn’t like what I was saying. So they enforced these policies to silence me. But colleges are the marketplace of ideas, and so all views — even my Christian ones — should be welcome.
And when government officials violate my freedom to express those views, they should be held accountable — even after I have graduated, and even after they changed their policies. So far, the courts have ignored that common-sense principle of justice, which many federal courts of appeal have adopted.
That’s why I and everyone from atheists to Jews, Muslims to Catholics, are hoping the Supreme Court will take my case — to clear up the legal waters so that no other student has to experience what I endured…and so that all of us may express our views freely.
Chike Uzuegbunum is a former student at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, Georgia.