Education

Christian group sues NC State University over speech policy

A Christian student organization at N.C. State University has sued four administrators at the school in federal court, claiming that the university’s policy on student speech is both unconstitutional and unfairly enforced.

Grace Christian Life says it should not have to get a permit from the university to hand out fliers and talk to students about Jesus and his church. It also says that its members have been told they must remain at their assigned table in the Talley Student Union building while representatives of other organizations are seen wandering around handing out literature and collecting signatures on petitions.

The lawsuit was filed by Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian organization based in Arizona that has been involved in numerous legal fights over religion, abortion and other issues across the country.

“Public universities are supposed to be the marketplace of ideas, not places where students need a permit just to exercise their constitutionally protected freedoms,” ADF attorney Tyson Langhofer said in a statement. “The only permit needed to engage in free speech is the First Amendment.”

University officials called the lawsuit “both frivolous and without merit.” In a statement, they said the university issues permits for distributing materials on campus “subject to constitutionally appropriate and reasonable time, place, or manner limits, without regard to the content or the viewpoint of the information being distributed.”

“NC State’s permitting process is constitutional, does not infringe on First Amendment rights, and is in compliance with applicable state and federal law,” the statement said.

At issue is NCSU’s solicitation policy which dates back to 1993 and governs where and how people and organizations can distribute written material and “oral speech to a passerby.” Among other things, the policy requires anyone involved in “non-commercial solicitation” to get a permit from the office of Student Involvement, which oversees student groups on campus.

The lawsuit contends that university officials told Grace Christian Life members last fall that they would need a permit to approach students in Talley Student Union. It says the group got a permit in January and was later told it needed to limit its activities to a table set up in the building.

The lawsuit cites several situations in which Grace Christian Life members say they saw representatives of other organizations, including a church, approaching students either without a permit or without remaining in one place. It says the uneven enforcement is partly a result of the policy itself, which the suit says “contains no guidelines or standards to limit the discretion of the administrator enforcing the policy.”

“The courts have well established that a public university can’t require permits in this manner for this kind of speech – and certainly can’t enforce such rules selectively,” another ADF attorney, David Hacker, said in a statement. “Unconstitutional censorship is bad enough, but giving university officials complete discretion to decide when and where to engage in silencing students makes the violation even worse.”

NCSU officials say their permitting process is applied consistently to all groups that distribute materials on campus.

“In fact, hundreds upon hundreds of individuals and groups have used this process each year to distribute information regarding topics ranging from faith to politics to health and any number of other interests,” their statement says. “NC State steadfastly remains willing to work with all individuals and organizations to educate them about the process and help them obtain a permit for distributing information and/or soliciting on campus.”

The lawsuit names four defendants: NCSU Chancellor Randy Woodson; Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Warwick Arden; T.J. Willis, associate director of University Student Centers, and Associate Provost Mike Giancola.

This isn’t the first time that ADF has been involved in a lawsuit against a UNC school. It helped UNC-Wilmington criminology professor Mike Adams sue the school’s trustees after he claimed he was passed over for a promotion in 2006 because of conservative columns he published online. Adams eventually prevailed in 2014 in a settlement with the university, which promoted him to full professor, gave him $50,000 in back pay and a raise and agreed to pay $615,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs.

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling

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