Saturday, January 9, 2021 : By Nathan Skates
The Supreme Court on January 12 will hear the case of Chike Uzuegbunam, a graduate of Georgia Gwinnett College who was prevented by the school from sharing his faith on campus. Two previous courts dismissed the case because the school changed its policies, but attorneys for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), who are representing Uzuegbunam, believes it is important that the Supreme Court rule on the matter.
Chike Uzuegbunam’s suit alleges that the school prevented him from sharing his faith on campus and that campus police threatened to punish him. After the suit was initially filed, the school changed its policies. Two lower courts dismissed the suit because the policy was no longer in effect, but ADF holds that the school needs to be held accountable in order to prevent further abuses and also to set a precedent about its view on First Amendment freedoms colleges and universities.
The suit argues:
“Petitioner Chike Uzuegbunam was a student at Georgia Gwinnett College when officials stopped him from sharing his faith on campus. The problem? He was not standing in, and had not reserved, a ‘speech zone,’ part of the 0.0015% of campus where the College confined ‘free speech expression.’ After securing a reservation and stationing himself in the minuscule speech zone, Chike began distributing religious literature and sharing his faith. Yet campus police stopped Chike from speaking again, purportedly because someone complained. As the police explained, the College’s speech code defined as ‘disorderly conduct’ anything that makes another person feel uncomfortable. So the police threatened to punish Chike if he did not stop speaking.”
The suit claims that the school initially “doubled down” and said that the First Amendment did not cover Uzuegbunam’s speech. Months later, the school changed its policies, leading to dismissal of the case by two federal courts.
ADF attorneys claim that dismissing the case allows the school to “get a free pass.” They explain,
“A Supreme Court victory [for Uzuegbunam] would likely mean that if (and when) college officials violate a student’s constitutional rights, those officials could be held responsible. And students like Chike would be more likely to get the justice they deserve. A victory could also put more weight behind court decisions that call out constitutional violations, deterring college officials from abusing their authority in the future.”
ADF’s argument is easy to see in light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision that New York’s restrictions on religious services were unconstitutional. The Court revisited the case and ruled against Cuomo’s orders even though they had been lifted by the time the justices heard the case.
By ruling that New York had unfairly discriminated against houses of worship and that Cuomo’s order was unconstitutional, it set a precedent. The Supreme Court has repeatedly referred to its decision in the New York case when similar suits have been filed. The decision has even caused other states to lift orders and serves to discourage them from enacting similar laws.
It is important that the Supreme Court go on record in this case. Such a blatant restriction of free speech and freedom of religion cannot be left unchallenged. If it is, schools, governments, and corporations will be able to restrict the rights of individuals and all they would have to do to escape penalties is change the policy if the person files suit.
Free speech and freedom of religious expression are cornerstones of our republic. It is imperative that they are protected. Too many universities and other organizations treat free speech as a privilege that can be granted, rescinded, and punished based on others’ response to that speech. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Uzuegbunam, others will be put on notice that the freedoms outlined in the First Amendment are inalienable individual rights and that violating those rights carries consequences.