Chike Uzuegbunam lives in New York City.
They also taught us that in this land where liberty is precious, citizens have a duty to defend it when they see freedoms infringed. That is how I came to have a case before the Supreme Court that will be heard on Tuesday.
In 2013, I enrolled at Georgia Gwinnett College, a public institution in Lawrenceville, Ga. I also became a Christian — a choice that brought me so much joy and purpose that I wanted to share my faith with as many people as possible.
A college campus offers opportunities for that. Students frequently stand in public areas to speak about issues that are important to them. I did that, too, talking about my beliefs, offering Christian pamphlets and engaging cheerfully with interested students. It was a chance to meet new people and respectfully share how Jesus changed my life.
One day, in 2016, a security guard approached, telling me I could not talk publicly about such things except in one of the college’s two “speech zones” — and a reservation would be needed. I went along with the policy, even though the zones made up 0.0015 percent of campus — the equivalent of a piece of paper on a football field — and were open only about 10 percent of the week.
But as I spoke for the first time in the zone I’d reserved, campus police stopped me again. They said someone had complained (I never learned the nature of the complaint), and — speech zone or not — I’d have to stop or face some unspecified punishment. All I was doing was speaking with students about something that mattered to me, the sort of thing I saw others doing in and out of the speech zones every day. Nonetheless, I stopped.
Yet the officials’ directive didn’t seem right to me. I spoke with attorneys at Alliance Defending Freedom, who helped me challenge the college’s restrictive policies in court, pointing out how blatantly those policies violated First Amendment protections of free speech. On a public campus, the U.S. Constitution protects the right of students to peacefully express themselves, including my freedom to speak about my faith.
The college’s first response, in 2017, was to say my speech was in a category that wasn’t protected — that the Constitution somehow didn’t apply to me. Two months later, administrators revised their speech policies, then asked the district court to dismiss the lawsuit because the college shouldn’t be held accountable for subjecting me (and other students) to policies that no longer existed.
After more than a year, the district court dismissed my case, since by then I had graduated and the college had changed its policies. In July 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit agreed with that ruling. It was as though what had happened to me didn’t matter.
But how important is freedom if those who impinge on it are never told that their rules are unconstitutional, are never put on notice that they can’t simply change the rules when someone protests and are then free to return to their unconstitutional ways whenever they like?
I decided to continue fighting for legal recognition that what happened to me violated my constitutional rights. I wasn’t seeking money; I just wanted to make sure that my college and other public institutions know that they are legally bound to honor the Constitution.
And it is happening in other places. My ADF attorneys have defended students at many schools, including the University of Wisconsin and California State University at Los Angeles, whose administrators, faced with legal action, have quickly changed their anti-First Amendment policies — and been spared accountability. Soon enough, though, the schools go back to violating students’ rights.
As my attorneys have explained and as many others have affirmed, similar things have happened in other areas, with government officials violating the speech rights of individuals and business owners, disregarding due process rights of prisoners, discriminating against churches in zoning, or subjecting individuals to unlawful search and seizure.
This lack of accountability is becoming far too common — so common that groups from many points of view — from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Americans for Prosperity Foundation — have come out in support of my case.
The administrators of public universities, and government officials generally, shouldn’t get a pass when they violate someone’s constitutional rights. No matter a person’s religious or political beliefs, in the land of the free, liberty belongs to every American.
This article has been updated to correct the name of the California State University campus. It is California State University at Los Angeles.