Taking Free Speech Zones to Court

David Acevedo

CounterCurrent: Week of 3/14

Remember the good ol’ days, when free speech on college campuses wasn’t limited to institutionally approved “zones”? When you could simply express your beliefs without fear of censure or discipline?

Unfortunately, those days are long gone. Or are they? Last week, the Supreme Court handed down an intriguing decision that may help discern what the future of free speech in higher ed will look like. The case, Uzuegbuman, et. al. v. Preczewski, et. al., was brought by Georgia Gwinnett College alumni Chike Uzuegbunam and Joseph Bradford against their alma mater, the administration of which, allegedly, violated the students’ First Amendment rights while they were undergraduates.

In 2016, Uzuegbuman set about distributing religious literature on campus and talking to interested students about his faith. He was stopped from doing so by Georgia Gwinnett officials, who informed him that such actions were only permissible in the college’s two “free speech zones.” Uzuegbuman set up shop in said zones and even obtained the necessary permit to operate within them. He was then stopped again, with college officials claiming this time that he violated school policy by “disturbing the peace and/or comfort of person(s)” on campus. Fellow student Joseph Bradford self-censored about his religious beliefs after the aforementioned events.

The two students then sued Georgia Gwinnett officials, including President Stanley C. Preczewski, for the damages they incurred through their denial of free expression. The school held its ground at first but proceeded to drop the policy. But at that point, it was too late. Uzuegbuman and Bradford were still unconstitutionally silenced, and the school was not held accountable—until now.

In this week’s featured article, National Association of Scholars Policy Director Teresa R. Manning examines the opinion of the Court written by Justice Thomas and considers what this might spell for the future of free speech on campus. She writes,

The case is significant for a number of reasons: First, the Court is now aware of, and arguably hostile to, campus limits on free speech such as zones, permits, and other time and place restrictions.

Second, the case shows how far from education institutions like Gwinnett have strayed: As any athletic coach can attest, no development happens - either physical or intellectual - without growing pains, aka discomfort. "Get out of your comfort zone!" is a common exhortation in sports, the arts, and business, and for good reason. Institutions of higher education that claim to ban discomfort have relegated themselves to a purpose other than intellectual growth - that is, other than education.

Georgia Gwinnett College’s behavior, as well as any other use of free speech zones or similar measures, is a clear violation of the First Amendment, plain and simple. It’s disheartening that so many colleges and universities abuse positions of power. Thankfully, the courts exist, and appear unwilling to let schools off the hook this time. In the past, college administrations would simply drop policies to make cases against them moot (Justice Roberts was friendly to Georgia Gwinnett College based on this procedural loophole), only to quickly return to their past policies after a procedural ruling against petitioners. America’s colleges and universities are more willing to accept the “all is fair in love and war” approach to their students than the courts would previously admit.

We urge all educational institutions to abolish “free speech zones” immediately, and, in the meantime, for brave students, professors, and administrators to continue challenging them in court. Hats off to you, Chike and Joseph.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by Communications & Research Associate David Acevedo. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Image: USCapitol, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

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