- - Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Free speech on college campuses has been a subject of great interest and controversy in recent years. From Jordan Peterson’s Youtube lectures to movies like Dennis Prager’s “No Safe Spaces,” it seems everyone has weighed in on the matter. But soon, we’ll hear from a source that hasn’t issued an opinion on this subject in over a decade: the U.S. Supreme Court.

As president of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL), an organization that works to defend free speech on college campuses, I know all too well the importance of allowing college students to express their views freely and of protecting the robust exchange of ideas that is supposed to be the hallmark of higher education. I also know how college officials often violate the rights of students, such as the young man in the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case, Chike Uzuegbunam.

Four years ago, Chike tried to peacefully share his Christian beliefs with fellow students at Georgia Gwinnett College as they passed by him on the campus sidewalk. But the campus police soon ordered him to stop, telling him that he needed advanced permission to speak and that he could only speak in the designated “speech zones.”

First, Chike already had advanced permission to speak on the public campus sidewalk: It’s called the First Amendment.

Second, the so-called “speech zones” at this college were absurdly miniscule. For context, if the campus was the size of a football field, the speech zones together would be the size of a piece of paper.

Undeterred, Chike decided to comply with the college’s rules, and later received permission and reserved a time to speak in a speech zone. Or so he thought. This time, campus police stopped him, took his ID, told him that someone complained and instructed him to stop speaking or face discipline. The college’s speech code banned speech that made anyone feel “uncomfortable.” Yet, this is precisely the kind of speech the First Amendment exists to protect. Popular speech needs no protection.

So, how did this get all the way to the Supreme Court? Chike sued the college. The district court took over a year to issue a ruling and by then, Chike had graduated and the college changed its unconstitutional policies to try to avoid any consequences. Sadly, that strategy worked because the district court ruled for the college, and 11th Circuit affirmed that ruling the next year.

This principle threatens the speech of all college students, whether they be Christian, Jewish, atheist, liberal or libertarian. When the government gets to decide who’s allowed to speak, everyone loses. And if a public college does violate your constitutional rights, like it did with Chike, the college can’t just change the policy down the road and get a free pass. The First Amendment cannot be so easily ignored. The college always has to acknowledge that it mistreated you by violating your rights.

That’s what nominal damages do. Further, under the 11th Circuit’s reasoning, there is nothing to stop Georgia Gwinnett College from going back to treating students the same way it treated Chike. In practice, this ruling allows colleges to turn unconstitutional censorship policies on and off to dodge liability in court.

That’s why YAL urged the U.S. Supreme Court to hear Chike’s appeal. And now that the court has agreed to hear the case this winter, we are filing a friend-of-the-court brief siding with Chike as well.

For better or worse, this case will set national precedent. And it will affect the free speech rights of students on every public college campus in America. 

More speech is the answer.

• Cliff Maloney is the president of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL).

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