The Supreme Court heard oral arguments Jan. 12 in the case of Chike Uzuegbunam and Joseph Bradford, former Georgia Gwinnett College (GGC) students who were stopped by school officials from sharing their faith on campus in 2016.
In July 2016, Uzuegbunam attempted to hand out Gospel pamphlets and engage in spiritual discussions with other students. But college officials quickly told him that he was not allowed to distribute materials or publicly share his faith without reserved time in a campus “speech zone.”
According to religious liberty law firm Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the school’s two speech zones accounted for just 0.0015% of the campus space. The free speech policy entailed cumbersome stipulations and only two hours set aside Monday through Friday for such speech.
In keeping with the college’s policy, Uzuegbunam reserved a zone the following month and again tried to share his faith, but was ordered to stop after someone complained. School officials said his evangelism “disturbed the peace and/or comfort of person(s)” and constituted “disorderly conduct” under GGC’s Student Code of Conduct.
“The college’s first response … was to say my speech was in a category that wasn’t protected—that the Constitution somehow didn’t apply to me,” Uzuegbunam wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post.
And after learning how school officials treated Uzuegbunam, Bradford, also an evangelical Christian, “self-censored” his actions to avoid the same response.
Following a lawsuit filed by ADF on Uzuegbunam and Bradford’s behalf, the school amended its policy. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit then dismissed the case, but ADF argued that the court never clarified that the school violated the students’ rights.
The high court expressed concerns that the case may be moot since neither Uzuegbunam nor Bradford attend the school any longer.
But ADF General Counsel Kristen Waggoner, who argued the case before the justices via phone from Scottsdale, Arizona, said “changing unconstitutional policies is an important first step. But policy changes alone do not remedy the harm done to those whose rights were violated by the government.”
“Colleges and universities are supposed to be places where we are free to explore and debate ideas, but my college silenced me and are getting away with it,” Uzuegbunam, who is only asking for $1 in damages, said. “Now that they have heard my story, I am hopeful that the Supreme Court will affirm my rights and the rights of all Americans, and that courts should hold officials accountable for violating our constitutional rights.”
Photo: Courtesy of Alliance Defending Freedom