By L.A. Williams
Christian Action League
June 9, 2016
RALEIGH – A student ministry at North Carolina State University struck a blow for the First Amendment last weekend when a federal court ordered NCSU to stop enforcing a speech code that requires permits for nearly any kind of student speech anywhere on campus.
Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys and other lawyers argued the case for Grace Christian Life before U.S. District Court Judge James Dever. The suit was filed after members of the registered student organization were told that they needed a permit to speak with other students in the student union. The group obtained a permit but was then told they could speak to other students only if they stayed behind their club table, a restriction not applied to other groups.
In limiting the activities of Grace Christian Life, university officials cited an NCSU policy that requires permits for “any distribution of leaflets, brochures, or other written material, or oral speech to a passerby.” It also requires anyone “wishing to conduct any form of solicitation on University premises” to first obtain written permission from the Student Involvement Office.
Judge Dever released his injunction of the speech code just two days after hearing arguments, ruling that Grace Christian Life is likely to succeed on the merits of its claim that the policy violates the First Amendment and that a preliminary injunction is in the public interest.
“Free speech is always in the best interest of the public,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “To think that a university is forcing students to get a permit before sharing written material or oral speech is ludicrous. It’s especially egregious to know the policy was used to target a faith-based group, but regardless, it’s unlawful on its face.”
ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer said, “Students of any political, religious, or ideological persuasion should be able to freely and peacefully speak with their fellow students about their views without interference from government officials who may prefer one view over another.”
“Because the only permit required for free speech on a public university campus is the First Amendment, we welcome the court’s decision to put a stop to NC State’s policy,” he said.
Unfortunately, N.C. State is far from alone in its repressive speech code. According to a recent study by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, 49.3 percent of 440 of the nation’s top colleges and universities surveyed maintain policies that “seriously infringe upon the free speech rights of students.”
The FIRE report points out that the Supreme Court ruled in 2002 in Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of NY, Inc. v. Village of Stratton that “[i]t is offensive—not only to the values protected by the First Amendment, but to the very notion of a free society—that in the context of everyday public discourse a citizen must first inform the government of her desire to speak to her neighbors and then obtain a permit to do so.”
Yet many colleges and universities do just that, FIRE observed, requiring students and student organizations to register their expressive activities well in advance and, often, to obtain administrative approval for those activities.
Seven of the 19 North Carolina institutions examined by the FIRE report earned a “red light,” meaning that they have at least one policy both clearly and substantially restricting freedom of speech, or that they bar public access to their speech-related policies by requiring logins and passwords. Twelve others were given a “yellow light” to show that they maintain “policies that could be interpreted to suppress protected speech or policies that, while clearly restricting freedom of speech, restrict only narrow categories of speech.”
The good news, according to FIRE, is that unconstitutional policies can be defeated in court, especially at public universities, where speech codes have been struck down in various cases across the nation and other policies have been revised as the result of legal settlements.
“It’s our hope that is what happens with the N.C. State case, and that the fallout affects the remaining ‘red light’ universities as well, persuading them to get rid of their repressive policies,” Dr. Creech said.