Last week, a Christian nonprofit group filed a federal lawsuit against a Georgia university for restricting a pro-life display to less than 0.08 percent of campus, while allowing an LGBT “Pride Day” event to take place across all the campus’s seven “free speech zones.”
“Universities are supposed to be places where ideas are freely shared, not gagged or quarantined,” Alliance Defending Freedom Legal Counsel Travis Barham, a lawyer representing the Christian student group Ratio Christi, told PJ Media. “Speech isn’t free when students have to ask permission and are limited as to where they can speak.”
In the lawsuit, filed on February 20, Ratio Christi — a Christian organization dedicated to merging faith and reason — charged Kennesaw State University (KSU) with unconstitutional violations of students’ free speech, due process, and equal protection rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. Ratio Christi argued that KSU’s speech zone policies are arbitrary and restrictive.
The complaint began in June 2013, when Ratio Christi’s legal counsel sent a lawyer requesting KSU alter its speech zone policies. Later that month, the university replied that it would review the policies, but it enacted no change in the next year, and Ratio Christi sent another complaint letter in June 2014. Three and a half years later, the organization has not received a response.
In October 2015, Ratio Christi held a pro-life display on campus. Students called the police, but the police found no fault. In February 2016, Ratio Christi requested the open and accessible Zone 2 to host another pro-life event.
Rather than granting their request, the administration forced Ratio Christi to move the event to Zone 4, one of two speech zones in a highly undesirable part of campus.
The “speech zone” of Zones 3 and 4 is separated from the sidewalk around the Campus Green by hedges, mulch beds, and mud, according to the lawsuit. This area has a negative connotation, as students presume that any event held there is “sponsored by an entity that is not a legitimate member of the KSU community.” Students “tend to avoid such events, equating them with people like street-preachers.”
Worse, this area is a mere 0.3 acres — on KSU’s 405-acre campus. The “speech zone” constitutes a mere 0.08 percent of the campus.
The administration told Ratio Christi that the February 2016 event had to take place in this inconvenient “speech zone,” rather than the area the group requested, Zone 2. Worse, the administrator made her intentions clear by calling the event “controversial,” and offering Zone 2 if Ratio Christi would exclude some of its pro-life posters for the event.
But the viewpoint discrimination did not stop there. On September 15, 2017, Ratio Christi again requested Zone 2 for an event. Having received no response, the Christian organization sent a follow-up email on October 9. The next day, an administrator responded, saying that the event could only take place in Zones 3 and 4, “due to the nature of your information table.”
While Ratio Christi conducted its pro-life display in the speech zone on October 31 and November 1, its members noted that the requested area in Zone 2 sat empty and unused the entire time.
To make matters worse, KSU displayed a bias and favoritism to an LGBT group, giving them free rein of the campus at the same time they denied one space to Ratio Christi.
In late October 2017, KSU administrators allowed Kennesaw Pride Alliance to reserve all seven zones of the Campus Green for its “Pride Day” event. “Ratio Christi finds it controversial that a group would so publicly advertise and promote sexual activities that [Ratio Christi] and its member believe are immoral and unhealthy, even if the group has a constitutional right to do so,” the lawsuit remarked.
Why are Ratio Christi’s pro-life displays considered too “controversial” for one prominent place on the green, while Kennesaw Pride Alliance’s event is considered so mainstream that no space was denied to them?
“What these officials did was wrong,” Barham, the ADF lawyer representing Ratio Christi, told PJ Media. “The First Amendment exists to protect speech that some people, even government officials, might find offensive or controversial, and it prohibits the government from relegating such speech to places where it will not be heard.”
Sadly, KSU is far from alone in enforcing restrictive and arbitrary speech zones on college campuses — the very place where the free exchange of ideas should be most cherished and protected.
Barham brought up the ADF’s lawsuit against Georgia Gwinnett College, which restricts speech to two tiny speech zones that make up less than 0.0015 percent of the campus and are closed for 90 percent of the week. Even the U.S. Department of Justice has filed a brief in support of Christian student Chike Uzuegbunam, whom the school attempted to censor.
The ADF lawyer also referenced the lawsuit against Kellogg Community College (KCC) in Michigan, which had students put in jail for attempting to distribute copies of the U.S. Constitution with Young Americans for Liberty.
Barham referenced the dozens of cases across the country fighting for free speech against restrictive campus codes. He expressed his hope that the KSU case could serve as a wake-up call for these colleges and universities — that their attempts to restrict free speech and due process will not go unchallenged.
“We hope this case serves as a warning to other universities across the country that such speech zone policies are unconstitutional and must be eliminated,” Barham told PJ Media.
Ratio Christi President and CEO Corey Miller emphasized the religious battle involved. “In today’s academic environment, Christian students and educators must not only defend our faith, but we must also defend our right to defend our faith,” he said in a statement.
In doing so, Miller, Ratio Christi, and ADF are fighting for free speech for everyone on campus — not just for Christians. Even so, this case suggests there might be a unique animus toward intelligent conservative believers, especially those who might find a “Pride Day” controversial.