Every once in a while I find myself agreeing with Christian right legal group the Alliance Defense Fund and this is one of those cases. It comes from Gwinnet College in Georgia, which prevented a Christian student from handing out fliers in a campus “free speech zone” (Mr. Orwell, call your office). The 11th Circuit actually backed the university and ADF is asking the Supreme Court to overturn that ruling.
In 2016, Chike was exercising his First Amendment rights, sharing his Christian faith by leafleting and talking to students outdoors at Gwinnett. Officials stopped him because he was not in one of the two, tiny speech “zones” the college set aside for expressive activities. Open only about 10 percent of the week, these zones comprised about 0.0015 percent of campus. And they required an advance reservation through which Gwinnett officials must approve the content of the speech and any handouts. Any expressive activity outside the zones required a permit.
Discouraged but unbowed, Chike made a reservation, obtained approval from the administration, and took his evangelization efforts to a speech zone. But officials quickly stopped him again. Why? Because someone had complained. And under the college’s speech code, anyone who “disturbs the peace and/or comfort of person(s)” on campus is guilty of “disorderly conduct.” To avoid punishment, Chike was forced to stop speaking about his faith anywhere on campus. Joseph self-censored after hearing how officials mistreated Chike.
First of all, the idea of free speech zones is dangerous. If it’s public property, it’s a free speech zone. The Constitution permits nothing less. Secondly, the notion that anyone’s speech can be shut down even when they follow those Orwellian rules because someone complains is equally dangerous. It’s a version of the Heckler’s Veto and it simply cannot be allowed. I have a right to express my opinions regardless of whether you find those opinions disturbing or not. The exceptions to this rule are very narrowly drawn and rarely in play. That’s how it should be.
I hope the Supreme Court takes the case and reverses the appeals court decision.