A student handing out religious literature claims Georgia Gwinnett College violated his First Amendment rights.
The U.S. Justice Department has weighed in on a lawsuit against Georgia Gwinnett College, arguing that a student wanting to spread his religious faith was unconstitutionally prohibited from doing so.
With its statement of interest in the case, the department, under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, drags GGC into a wider, ongoing debate about freedom of speech on the nation’s college campuses.
“A national recommitment to free speech on campus and to ensuring First Amendment rights is long overdue,” Sessions said in a statement on Tuesday. “Which is why, starting today, the Department of Justice will do its part in this struggle. We will enforce federal law, defend free speech, and protect students’ free expression.”
The lawsuit, by Chike Uzuegbunam, was filed by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian organization that has been deemed “virulently anti-gay” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In the lawsuit, lawyers for the group claim that, last July, Uzuegbunam “sought to share his Christian faith peacefully” on the Lawrenceville campus, but was told by officials that he must ask for permission in advance to speak publicly and do so only at one of two “speech zones.”
Even after he met those conditions, the suit alleges, GGC officials ordered him to stop because his speech amounted to disorderly conduct.
A spokeswoman for GGC said Wednesday that the school takes students’ free-speech rights seriously.
“Georgia Gwinnett College believes that the rights set forth in the First Amendment are of the utmost importance,” spokeswoman Asia Hauter said in an email. “Though the college cannot comment on pending litigation, it has ensured and will continue to ensure that individuals are able to exercise their First Amendment rights on campus.”
According to the ADF, Uzuegbunam was handing out religious literature and speaking with others on the campus about his faith in a plaza outside the college library.
Officials told him he must request advance notice to do so, and must speak in one of two “small speech zones” during the 2-4 hours a day they are open.
Last August, the group says, he was speaking and handing out literature at one of the speech zones when, after about 20 minutes, campus police arrived and told him to stop because they had received complaints.
The lawsuit claims that students speaking on non-religious issues on campus have been treated differently. It requests an immediate suspension of GGC’s speech policies and a declaration that they violated the First and Fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
The lawsuit names GGC President Stas Preczewski and other campus officials, including GGC police, as defendants.
In its statement, the Justice Department said the free-speech zones at GGC “totaled 0.0015% of the campus” and that the college’s speech policies “were not content-neutral, established an impermissible heckler’s veto, and were not narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest.”
Formerly known as the Alliance Defense Fund, Alliance Defending Freedom is a nonprofit organization based in Scottsdale, Arizona.
The group specializes in pro-Christianity lawsuits on issues such as religious invocations at public events, religious displays on public property and allowing healthcare workers to refuse performing certain procedures or prescribing certain medications based on their faith.
The group has fought against same-sex marriage in a manner that led the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups, to refer to the organization as “virulently anti-gay.”