Students demand ‘full justice’ in censorship lawsuit
Two students who filed a free speech lawsuit against Georgia Gwinnett College (GGC) for censorship in 2016 are now appealing after the lawsuit was dismissed on a technicality.
The court dismissed the lawsuit after determining that the students’ First Amendment claims “became moot after the college modified its speech policies,” according to a statement issued Monday by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a non-profit legal organization that is representing the students.
The lawsuit was originally filed on behalf of GGC student Chike Uzuegbunam, who claimed that he was repeatedly silenced for speaking openly about his Christian faith in a campus free speech zone.
ADF challenged the constitutionality of the school’s speech policies, which GGC subsequently revised by agreeing to allow free speech in any outdoor area of campus and removing language prohibiting “behavior which disrupts the peace and/or comfort of person(s).”
The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia accepted GGC’s motion to dismiss the case, ruling that the policy changes rendered it “moot,” but ADF notes that the decision “failed to address whether GGC violated the constitutionally protected freedoms of student Chike Uzuegbunam when it repeatedly silence him.”
“The district court ignored how GGC officials repeatedly censored Chike, and these officials should not get off scot-free for creating and enforcing policies that trampled students’ constitutionally protected freedoms,” declared Travis Barham, legal counsel for ADF.
“We’re encouraged that GGC eliminated its unconstitutional speech code and that the court ruled students can speak freely on campus, but we want to ensure that the wrong done to our clients is righted,” added Tyson Langhofer, senior counsel and director of the the ADF Center for Academic Freedom.
In 2016, Uzuegbunam was attempting to hand out pamphlets and speak about his Christian faith after reserving space in one of the two campus free speech zones, which ADF notes account for just .0015% of campus property, combined.
According to the lawsuit, Uzuegbunam was forced to stop speaking after administrators determined that his speech constituted “disorderly conduct” because it had “generated complaints,” after which they allegedly “instructed him to use the methods of other religious denominations to communicate his beliefs and viewpoints.”
Another student, Joseph Bradford, later joined the suit, arguing that the school’s policies were preventing him from engaging in similar expressive activities on campus.
The Department of Justice weighed in on the lawsuit in September, filing a statement of interest arguing that “the college’s speech policies were not content-neutral, established an impermissible heckler’s veto, and were not narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest.”
The court’s May 25 ruling deemed Uzuegbunam’s claims moot because he has since graduated, and therefore cannot expect to be “subjected to the same alleged injury again,” and also dismissed Bradford’s claims on the grounds that GGC no longer maintains the policies in question.
Despite those policy changes, however, ADF is pushing to hold GGC officials responsible for their previous infringement of Uzuegbunam’s First Amendment rights, contending that the experience deterred Uzuegbunam from engaging in expressive activity for the remainder of his time on campus.
While the school satisfied part of the lawsuit’s demands by revising its speech policies, Uzuegbunam is also seeking “nominal damages” for the violation of his rights, as well as “reasonable attorneys’ fees” to cover his legal costs.
Spokespersons for GGC did not immediately respond to Campus Reform’s request for comment on the appeal.
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