A Georgia Gwinnett College student who is suing the school, claiming that its speech zone and speech code policies have violated his First Amendment rights, got some backing from the federal government on Tuesday.
The U.S. Department of Justice filed a brief in Chike Uzuegbunam’s suit against the school, expressing the government’s interest in the case. In a statement, the department said the allegations “adequately represented violations” of students’ First and 14th Amendment rights.
Federal officials also said there were several issues with school’s policies concerning student speech, arguing they are not content-neutral, were not tailored to “achieve a compelling government interest” and made it difficult to overcome what the Justice Department called a “heckler’s veto.”
“A national recommitment to free speech on campus and to ensuring First Amendment rights is long overdue which is why, starting today, the Department of Justice will do its part in this struggle,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in the statement. “We will enforce federal law, defend free speech, and protect students’ free expression.”
The lawsuit was filed in December with Uzuegbunam and his attorneys asserting that the school restricted his ability to offer free speech to “two tiny speech zones” that are open for 18 hours each week.
The student asserted in the suit that school officials required him to ask for permission to speak three days before hand, and ordered him to not talk about his faith because it was deemed “disorderly conduct.”
Officials from the Department of Justice said in the brief that the government has a “significant interest” in the outcome of the case and “the vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms in institutions of higher learning.” They also said in the brief that the government is also interested in the case because of allegations that there was disparate treatment of speech based on religion.
Justice department officials said Congress and the Supreme Court have previously weighed in on different issues brought up by the case, including free speech on college campuses and the expression of religious viewpoints.
“Congress has declared that ‘an institution of higher education should facilitate the free and open exchange of ideas,’” federal officials wrote in the brief. “In recent years, however, concerns have been raised that some institutions of higher education have failed to answer this call, and that free speech has been under attack on campuses across the country.”
Georgia Gwinnett College spokeswoman Asia Hauter said the school views First Amendment rights as being “of the utmost importance.”
“Though the College cannot comment on pending litigation, it has ensured and will continue to ensure that individuals are able to exercise their First Amendment rights on campus,” she said in an email.
Uzuegbunam’s attorney, Travis Barham, said in a statement that he was encouraged by the Department of Justice’s filing, which he said supports his client’s arguments against Georgia Gwinnett College officials.
“As the Department of Justice brief filed in this case affirms, students don’t lose their constitutionally protected right to free speech when they set foot on a college campus,” Barham said. “While touting commitments to diversity and open communications, Georgia Gwinnett College confined the speech of students to two ridiculously small speech zones, and then censored the speech that occurred in those areas.
“It is encouraging to see that the Department of Justice takes the constitutional rights of college and university students so seriously, and we hope that Georgia Gwinnett College will be held accountable for disregarding these freedoms.”