For more than three years, Chike Uzuegbunam was involved in a lawsuit against his alma mater, Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, Georgia, for denying his constitutional right to free speech. The case reached partial resolution with the federal 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which dismissed the case after the college dropped its strict measures limiting free speech to two small zones on campus.
But that’s not the end of the story. The court failed to deal with whether the college wronged Uzuegbunam by violating his constitutional rights to free speech—something his attorneys are appealing to the Supreme Court to answer.
In July 2016, Uzuegbunam attempted to share his Christian faith with his peers on campus by handing out pamphlets and engaging in Biblical discussions. However, college officials quickly informed him that he was not allowed to distribute materials or talk to other students about his beliefs unless he had reserved time in a campus “speech zone.”
According to Alliance Defending Freedom, the school’s two speech zones account for just 0.0015% of the campus. Students must ask permission to use the zones at least three days in advance, and the areas are only able to be reserved for two to four hours per day during the week. The zones are not available during the weekends.
In compliance with the college’s speech zone policy, Uzuegbunam reserved a zone the following month and again tried to share his faith, but was ordered to stop because someone complained. Officials said his evangelistic efforts “disturbed the peace and/or comfort of person(s)” and were therefore considered “disorderly conduct” under GGC’s Student Code of Conduct.
In December 2016, ADF filed a lawsuit on Uzuegbunam’s behalf.
“The First Amendment guarantees every student’s freedom of speech and religion. Every public school—and especially a state college that is supposed to be the ‘marketplace of ideas’—has the duty to protect and promote those freedoms,” said ADF Legal Counsel Travis Barham. “Students don’t check their constitutionally protected free speech at the campus gate. While touting commitments to ‘diversity’ and ‘open communications,’ Georgia Gwinnett College confines the speech of students to two ridiculously small speech zones and then censors the speech that occurs in those areas.”
In September 2017, the United States Department of Justice filed a brief supporting Uzuegbunam’s right to free speech on campus, stating that “colleges and universities must protect free speech and may not discriminate out of a concern that listeners might find the content of speech offensive or uncomfortable.”
A federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit dismissed the case after GGC amended its speech zone policy. Yet ADF argues that the court never clarified that the school was in the wrong.
“We’re encouraged that GGC eliminated its unconstitutional speech code and that the court ruled students can speak freely on campus, but we want to ensure that the wrong done to our clients is righted,” said ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom.
So, in January 2020, ADF asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear Uzuegbunam’s case and give him the justice he deserves.
“We need to ensure that the wrong done to our client is righted—something that both the district court and the 11th Circuit failed to do,” said Langhofer. “It’s our hope the Supreme Court will weigh in to make sure that this denial of justice doesn’t occur to anyone else.”
Photo: Courtesy of Chike Uzuegbunam