Chike Uzuegbunam has graduated from college, but he hasn’t been able to fully move on.
For more than three years now, Chike has been involved in a lawsuit against his alma mater, Georgia Gwinnett College. Let’s take a look at his case and what got him here in the first place.
Who: Chike Uzuegbunam
Chike truly lives out the call of Mark 16:15: “Go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel to the whole creation.”
He is passionate about sharing the Good News with those around him. So, after Chike started attending Georgia Gwinnett College, he saw it as his new mission field.
To Chike, this is the most loving thing that you can do for someone else—to share the Good News that Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose again so that we can have eternal life with Him. But college officials did not see it that way.
Instead, they saw Chike’s message of grace and hope as “disorderly conduct.” And they silenced him from sharing the Gospel on campus.
But for Chike, this is not something he can stay quiet about. That’s why he reached out to Alliance Defending Freedom for help.
What: Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski
This all started in July 2016 when Chike was handing out pamphlets in a plaza on campus and talking about the Gospel with interested students as they passed. Not long after he began, some college officials approached Chike. They informed him that he was not allowed to distribute materials or talk to other students about his beliefs unless he had reserved a time in the campus “speech zone.”
Georgia Gwinnett College had two separate speech zones—but don’t be fooled. To say these spaces are tiny would be an understatement. Combined, they made up about 0.0015 percent of campus. So if the entire campus were the size of a football field, these “speech zones”—the only places students could exercise their First Amendment rights—would be the size of a piece of paper. On top of that, they were only open for student use for 10 percent of the week—just 18 hours on weekdays and closed on the weekends.
Still, Chike followed the orders, reserved a time, and even received approval from college officials for the literature he intended to distribute. But when he began sharing his faith in the speech zone during the time he had reserved, campus police approached him. The officers told him to stop speaking because they had received complaints.
Under the Student Code of Conduct, Chike’s peaceful speech was classified as “disorderly conduct,” defined as any speech “which disturbs the peace and/or comfort of person(s).”
Because Chike was silenced on his campus, ADF filed a lawsuit on his behalf.
This was an open-and-shut case involving First Amendment violations. But Georgia Gwinnett College doubled down. In its first motion to dismiss the case, the college said that Chike’s preaching of the Gospel “arguably rose to the level of ‘fighting words,’” a category of speech the First Amendment does not protect. If college officials can ban preaching the Gospel on campus by claiming that it amounts to “fighting words,” then government officials can do the same elsewhere. This should concern us all.
The college eventually abandoned this argument and amended its free speech policy to allow for speech in any outdoor area of campus—which is consistent with the U.S. Constitution. While this is great news, it doesn’t change the fact that college officials violated Chike’s right to free speech by silencing him twice. And the lawsuit continues so that Chike can get the justice he deserves.
When: December 2016 – Present
ADF filed a lawsuit on Chike’s behalf at the end of 2016. In September 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a brief supporting Chike’s right to free speech on campus: “Colleges and universities must protect free speech and may not discriminate out of a concern that listeners might find the content of speech offensive or uncomfortable.”
Unfortunately, a federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit dismissed the case because Georgia Gwinnett modified its speech policy and Chike graduated. The courts said Chike was not entitled to any relief. But the violation of Chike’s free speech rights still needs to be addressed; a court has never resolved whether the officials’ conduct was wrong.
So, in January 2020, ADF asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear Chike’s case and give him the justice he deserves.
Where: Lawrenceville, Georgia
Georgia Gwinnett College is located in Lawrenceville, Georgia.
Why: The only permit students need to speak freely on campus is the First Amendment.
Free speech is not free if it is limited to a tiny area on campus, requires a permit, and can be classified as “disorderly conduct” or “fighting words” at the whim of college officials. The First Amendment guarantees a right to free speech, and Georgia Gwinnett College should be in the business of upholding and cherishing that right, not silencing it.
The Bottom Line
Today’s college students are tomorrow’s voters, legislators, and judges. If they are being taught that the correct way to deal with speech you disagree with is to shut it down, they will carry that understanding with them once they leave campus. To preserve free speech for us all, we must protect free speech on college campuses so that students learn to respectfully interact with diverse viewpoints. And when our constitutional freedoms are violated, courts should say so, even when officials back down. Otherwise, very little stops them from doing so again.
Sarah Kramer worked as an investigative reporter before joining the Alliance Defending Freedom team.