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Religion

Georgia’s Colleges Are Suppressing Christian Speech

Commencement ceremonies at Harvard University, 2012 (Reuters photo: Brian Snyder)

Free speech is for everyone, regardless of party, ideology, race, ethnicity, religion, or sexuality. Everyone someplace or sometime is in the minority, and freedom of speech is a minority’s best friend. We protect the speech of minorities because someday, somehow, we may be in the minority too.

Although we should never forget this larger point, sometimes you have to get down to cases. Georgia is one of many states that have seen a string of speech incidents on campus recently. Incredibly, Christian speech is the minority viewpoint that needs protecting on Georgia’s college campuses, despite being a state where traditional Christians may be a majority, or something close to it. How have Georgia’s Christians been put in these straits — on public college campuses, no less — and what can be done about it?

Attorney General Sessions made national news last fall when he directed the Department of Justice to file a “statement of interest” in a federal lawsuit against Georgia Gwinnett College’s “speech zone” policy. Few people realize that the plaintiff in this case is an Evangelical Christian student prevented by Georgia Gwinnett from speaking to fellow students about his faith. And this is only one of several instances in which Georgia’s public colleges have used restrictive codes and zones to silence Christian speech. Yet the Georgia State Legislature may soon pass a campus free-speech bill (SB 339) that has been stripped of all protections against these pernicious so-called free-speech zones. There is a way to right this wrong, but time is running out.

Before addressing legislative state of play, let’s have a look at the plight of Christian speech on Georgia’s public college campuses.

The Georgia Gwinnett case, filed by the Alliance Defending Freedom on behalf of plaintiff and Georgia Gwinnett student Chike Uzuegbunam, is very much about so-called free-speech zones. Georgia Gwinnett’s two tiny speech zones occupy less than 0.0015 percent of the campus, and are open only 18 hours a week. If you want speak in public or leaflet about politics or religion anywhere on campus on a Friday, for example, it had better be in those tiny zones between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. or you’re out of luck  — and even then you’ll have to get authorization three business days in advance.

Uzuegbunam first got into trouble for standing outside the library while distributing religious literature and telling passers-by about the need for salvation through Jesus Christ. You see, Uzuegbunam was standing outside of the official speech zones, and hadn’t submitted a request to leaflet. Next time, Uzuegbunam applied to use one of the speech zones and submitted for administrative approval a copy of the pamphlet he planned to distribute. Georgia Gwinnett granted his request. But when Uzuegbunam stood on a stool inside the official speech zone, he told passersby that Jesus Christ had come to earth to die on the cross, and rose from the dead to grant men and women the way to salvation. That’s when Uzuegbunam was silenced by campus police.

This time Uzuegbunam had fallen afoul of Georgia Gwinnett’s “disorderly conduct” policy, which outlaws anything that “disturbs the comfort” of listeners. Of course, defining disorderly conduct this way enshrines the “heckler’s veto.” In effect, Georgia Gwinnett allows listeners to say, “You make me uncomfortable, so shut up.” According to Uzuegbunam’s filing, after he was silenced by campus police, a Georgia Gwinnett administrator told him, “it is a violation of [college] policy for anyone to express a ‘fire and brimstone’ message on campus.” Since then, Uzuegbunam has had little choice but to keep quiet about his Christian beliefs while on campus.

Georgia Gwinnett’s outrage against the First Amendment has rightly drawn national attention, and it is by no means the only such incident in Georgia.

Just a couple of weeks ago, for example, a Christian student organization at Georgia’s Kennesaw State University (KSU) filed a federal lawsuit challenging the university’s speech-zone policy. As with Uzuegbunam, the group is represented by Alliance Defending Freedom. (ADF has done yeoman’s work to protect free speech in Georgia, and nationally.) In this case, the student group Ratio Christi (Reason of Christ) was forced to confine its pro-life display to a tiny out-of-the-way speech zone consisting of less than 0.08 percent of Kennesaw’s 405 acre campus.

According to Ratio Christi’s suit, a KSU administrator told the group that if they removed the pro-life posters she deemed most “controversial,” she would upgrade their protest to a less out-of-the-way zone. Ratio Christi refused to remove the posters this administrator disliked, and so were pushed to a spot far away from other students. While Ratio Christi’s pro-life displays were relegated to tiny out-of-the-way zones in both 2016 and 2017, due to their supposedly “controversial” nature, in October of last year KSU permitted an LGBT group to reserve all seven speech zones for its “Pride Day” demonstration. So KSU’s zone policy can easily be manipulated by administrators to censor ideas that offend their secular prejudices.

The Georgia Gwinnett and Kennesaw State cases follow in the wake of the legal battle fought from 2006-2008 by two conservative students, Ruth Malhotra, a leader in the Christian student community, and Orit Sklar, a leader in the Jewish student community, at Georgia Tech (Georgia Institute of Technology).

The Malhotra-Sklar case, argued by David French for Alliance Defending Freedom, arose not from any single incident but from years of clashes between religious and conservative students and the Georgia Tech administration. Issues of morality and sexuality were at the forefront of these disputes. Administrators forced students to take down a display critical of radical feminism, for example. Administrators even pressured students to participate in Coming Out Week, when this violated their deeply held religious views. Selective enforcement of university speech codes was used to silence students. Invited speakers were hindered from addressing students, and an event was even shut down by campus police, says Malhotra.  According to Malhotra, Georgia Tech administrators, right up to the president, repeatedly warned her against speaking out on important public issues.

The atmosphere was electric when Malhotra testified at a February hearing on the Georgia Campus Free Speech Act (SB 339). (I also testified at that hearing in favor of SB 339.) Malhotra recalled that when she confronted a Georgia Tech dean and accused him of indoctrination, he brazenly admitted, “Ruth, students have been indoctrinated for the first 18 years of their lives by their parents and by their churches; we only have four years to undo the damage.” Although administrators rarely speak so openly, this is the nub of the problem.

Also present at February’s hearing on Georgia SB 339 were Douglas Brown and Samantha Stewart, Georgia students with the Baptist collegiate ministries, and Mike Griffin, a Public Affairs Representative with the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. Brown told of an incident in which he had been given written permission to bring Evangelical visitors to an indoor area of campus on a rainy day, yet found that, in the end, his ministry was barred from campus that day. Even in sunny weather, said Brown, the Baptist campus ministry is confined to tiny outdoor zones that have limited access to students.

I’ve only reviewed the high-profile cases. You can bet that for every federal case there are plenty more instances in which students are cowed into self-censorship and never heard from again. Malhotra’s lawsuit prompted rape threats, death threats, and other violent threats. She was forced to move out of her sorority house and had to attend class with police protection during her final months on campus. How many students simply surrender and stay silent rather than face all that? This is why legislation is necessary. Students should not have to face the risks and burdens of suing their own school, just to secure the basic rights colleges ought to be safeguarding to begin with.

Given the track record of hostility to Christian speech on Georgia’s public college campuses, and given the importance of traditional Christianity to so many Georgia citizens, you would think the legislature would put an end to these pernicious so-called free-speech zones. Unfortunately, the truth is just the opposite.

Georgia’s public universities were out in force at the hearing on SB 339, with the presidents of the University of Georgia and Georgia State University testifying in person. They denied or downplayed all problems. In fact, the president of Georgia State University denied that there was a national campus free-speech crisis at all. And the universities have been active behind the scenes as well, pressuring the legislature to gut SB 339. Particularly on the matter of speech zones, the universities have so far succeeded. Although the version of SB 339 that recently cleared the Senate is an important incremental step forward for campus free-speech in the state, the bill does nothing to protect against so-called free- speech zones. All the key provisions on zones have been gutted.

Should a campus free-speech bill become law in Georgia while doing nothing to curb the practice of speech zones, it would be shocking — and an embarrassment to the state. Speech zones are generally the easiest problem for legislatures to fix. The initial wave of campus free-speech laws specifically targeted speech zones as an easily outlawed, facially unconstitutional practice. Most often zones were banned with strong bipartisan support. It would be little short of incredible for a campus free-speech bill to be stripped of all protections against speech zones — especially in a state where zones continue to be used as a weapon against the majority Christian view. With the Georgia Gwinnett case drawing national concern, you would think that speech zones would be the very first thing to go. Instead, a bill meant to eliminate campus speech zones has been amended by the university to give these zones, if anything, increased protection.

State Senator William Ligon, the sponsor of SB 339, has fought valiantly for the bill, and will be working with members on the House side to strengthen it with amendments that restore protections against speech zones. Other essential protections for the liberties of Georgians that were stripped by the universities in the Senate may also be restored in the House.

Ligon is on the case, but time is running short. Georgia’s legislative session is compressed, and the House has only a limited window over the coming weeks to strengthen sections of the bill that the universities have managed to gut.

I’ll have more to say in the coming days about SB 339, but the central point is clear. Georgia’s public colleges and universities have been using unconstitutional speech zones to suppress Christian speech in a state where traditional Christians make up a large part of the citizenry. And those same universities have managed to gut the core protections against speech zones in SB 339. Should the Georgia State House fail to restore those protections, nobody’s speech will be safe on Georgia’s public college campuses. If even the dominant view in Georgia can be ostracized and banned at its universities through flagrantly unconstitutional acts, then the rights of every student in the state are will be subject to the whims of irresponsible administrators. Georgia deserves better than this.

Stanley Kurtz — Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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