Christian student organization sues N.C. State over muzzling of religious speech

by Gregory Tomlin, |
The view inside the new North Carolina State University Talley Student Union. | NC State/Talley Student Union/Facebook

RALEIGH, N.C. (Christian Examiner) – A Christian student organization at North Carolina State University is suing the school for violating its members' right to speak openly about their faith on campus.

In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina April 26, the members of Grace Christian Life claimed that it is a registered student organization on the campus, but that it is forced to seek approval from university administrators before it can have open and frank discussions about religion with other students.

Attorneys for the Christian student group argue in the complaint that the university's reputation as a "marketplace of ideas" depends on the students' ability to freely express their thoughts and beliefs, but the campus "Speech Permit Policy" regulates the activity in a way that subordinates free speech, including the distribution of written materials, to the university's administration.

"The Policy also grants university officials unbridled discretion to restrict the content and viewpoint of student speech if it is not 'consistent with the University's mission and purpose of the location,'" the lawsuit claims.

In the filing, Grace Christian Life ("Grace") claims its goals is "to give an accurate picture of Jesus and His church to all people everywhere.

"In furtherance of its goal, student members and staff of Grace regularly initiate conversations with students about religion and other important topics. These conversations take place in the public areas of campus where students congregate such as inside and outside of the Talley Student Union. On September 15, 2015, Grace was informed by the University that it was not allowed to approach students for the purpose of engaging in religious conversations without first obtaining prior written permission of the University," attorneys for the student group claimed.

Universities commonly establish "free speech zones" on their campuses for interactions such as those described in the court filing, but a recent spate of lawsuits has challenged the restrictions of speech to a specific time and place – often far off the beaten path and in small spaces.

In 2014, students from three California campuses launched what the Los Angeles Times called "the first-ever coordinated legal attack on free speech restrictions in higher education." An Arizona student also challenged her schools limitation on free speech in December 2015.

Oftentimes, it is conservative groups that are left on the margins. For example, at the University of Hawaii-Hilo, students from Young Americans for Liberty were not allowed to distribute copies of the U.S. Constitution outside of the school's small "free speech zone." The same organization saw a similar situation arise at the University of Cincinnati when the group tried to collect signatures for a "right to work" law. The students were ordered to remain in the free speech zone or cease and desist their activity.

Students in the Hawaii and Ohio cases are being represented by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Grace Christian Life is being represented by Alliance Defending Freedom.

ADF's Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer, who claims the university is violating the students' free speech, free exercise, due process and equal protection rights, said students at a public university do not need a permit to exercise freedoms provided in the Constitution.

"The only permit needed to engage in free speech is the First Amendment," Langhofer said.

David Hacker, also a senior counsel with ADF, said the organization is asking the court to invalidate the university's speech permit policy and allow the students to practice free speech "free from unconstitutional restrictions."

N.C. State Chancellor W. Randolph Woodson, Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Warwick Arden, Associate Director of University Student Centers T.J. Willis, and Associate Provost Mike Giancola are named as defendants in the lawsuit.

The university has not issued a statement in response to complaint.