ADF to Supreme Court: Students deserve justice in free speech suit against Georgia college

Petition asks high court to weigh in on outlier 11th Circuit view that makes govt officials unaccountable for unconstitutional actions
Friday, January 31, 2020

WASHINGTON – Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing two former students at Georgia Gwinnett College asked the U.S. Supreme Court Friday to hear their case and vindicate their free speech rights. Two federal courts declined to address whether Gwinnett violated the students’ constitutional rights because the college modified its policies after the case was filed. Most federal courts will decide the constitutional question even if the government changes its policy because doing so prevents future misconduct and vindicates the essential freedoms that the Constitution protects.

Student Chike Uzuegbunam tried to share his Christian faith with other students on the Lawrenceville, Georgia, campus in 2016. College officials quickly stopped him because he had not reserved one of two tiny zones where free expression was allowed without a permit—zones that together made up only 0.0015% of campus. When Uzuegbunam reserved a zone and again tried to share his faith, officials again ordered him to stop because someone complained, which made his evangelization efforts “disorderly conduct” under a Gwinnett policy that applied to any expression that “disturbs the peace and/or comfort of person(s).” Student Joseph Bradford chose not to speak at all after seeing how officials treated Uzuegbunam. That’s when ADF attorneys representing the two filed the lawsuit, Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, to challenge the college’s speech zone and speech code policies.

“Government officials shouldn’t be allowed to get away with repeatedly enforcing policies that trample students’ constitutionally protected freedoms,” said ADF Senior Counsel Travis Barham, who argued before the 11th Circuit. “The district court clarified what Georgia Gwinnett College refused to make clear—that its students now have the freedom to speak in any outdoor area of campus. But neither it nor the 11th Circuit held Gwinnett officials accountable for how they repeatedly mistreated, censored, and intimidated Chike and Joseph.”

The petition filed with the Supreme Court points out that the 11th Circuit is the only federal appellate court that leaves government officials—here, those at a public college—unaccountable for violating citizens’ constitutionally protected freedoms when those officials later change their policies during litigation.

“[T]he Eleventh Circuit’s outlier view allows these institutions to violate constitutional rights with impunity—avoiding judicial review through a well-timed policy shift,” explains the petition submitted by ADF Senior Counsel and Vice President of Appellate Advocacy John Bursch. “This rule sends a clear message to students when school officials trample their freedoms: ‘Don’t bother retaining counsel; we know how to game the legal system.’ And it signals that colleges can keep censoring students without consequence…. This Court should intervene and declare that federal courts remain open to everyone when colleges violate students’ constitutional rights.”

After the lawsuit began, Gwinnett amended its speech zone policy and eliminated its speech code but did nothing to rectify its mistreatment of the students.

“We need to ensure that the wrong done to our clients is righted—something that both the district court and the 11th Circuit failed to do,” said ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom. “It’s our hope the Supreme Court will weigh in to make sure that this denial of justice doesn’t occur to anyone else.”
 
  • Pronunciation guide: Barham (BEAR’-um), Chike Uzuegbunam (CHEE’-kay Oo-zah-BUN’-um), Preczewski (Preh-SHEV’-skee), Langhofer (LANG’-hoff-ur)

The ADF Center for Academic Freedom is dedicated to ensuring freedom of speech and association for students and faculty so that everyone can freely participate in the marketplace of ideas without fear of government censorship.
 
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