NC Family president John Rustin talks with Tyson Langhofer, senior legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), about a lawsuit ADF has filed on behalf a Christian student group against NC State’s speech permit policy.
INTRODUCTION: Tyson Langhofer is senior legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith. At ADF, Tyson plays a key role on the Center for Academic Freedom.
Tyson is going to be talking with us about a lawsuit ADF has recently filed on behalf of a Christian student group against NC State University. The dispute is over an arguably unconstitutional university policy that requires student groups to file for and obtain a permit before handing out literature and even speaking with other students in public places on campus.
JOHN RUSTIN: Tyson, tell us about the student group involved in this case, Grace Christian Life, and what caused this group to pursue a lawsuit against NC State University?
TYSON LANGHOFER: Grace Christian Life is a student organization at NC State that has been around for more than 20 years, and their goal is just to create a place for Christians there on campus to fellowship and then to share the love of Jesus with students, and they’ve been doing that actively for over 20 years. And, one of the things that Grace does is they interact with other students on campus—they’ll invite them to Grace events or just begin religious conversations with their fellow students. Last September, when one of their students and another individual with Grace Christian Life, a staff member there, they were at the Talley Student Union, and they were just talking with various students and sharing with them what Grace Christian does, and then talking about religious beliefs. They were stopped by a university official and told that they could no longer engage in those conversations in the Student Union without a permit, and were asked to leave. The students obeyed the request and left, and so that’s what began this process.
JOHN RUSTIN: Unfortunately, these speech permit policies of this nature are not all that uncommon on college and university campuses. And I know in the lawsuit, one of the first things it says in the complaint is that it says that “Public Universities are really supposed to be known as the market place of ideas,” where students are able to converse with each other, to share ideas, to have discussions and collaborate, and to just share beliefs and to learn. It’s all about the academic pursuit. What does the “Speech Permit Policy” require of students, and do you believe it is constitutional?
TYSON LANGHOFER: The permit policy that NC State has in place is extremely broad. It requires a permit for what they define as both commercial solicitation and non-commercial solicitation. And the non-commercial solicitation is essentially defined any student handing out any kind of written material to any other student, or any oral speech to a passer by. So, it’s literally as broad as it could be, and that applies to the entire campus, both inside and outside. So this policy grants the university officials to essentially stop any student from doing an activity as common as handing out a paper to somebody else, or calling out to another student. And they could in theory, under this policy, require those students to obtain a permit. As you said the Permit Policies, or Speech Permit Policies are not all that unusual on university campuses, unfortunately, but in this case, this is one of the broadest restraints on speech that I’ve seen. You know free speech on campus it’s a no brainer. College students don’t need a permit to talk to their classmates on campus. The only permit they need is the First Amendment.
JOHN RUSTIN: Prior to the lawsuit being filed, what efforts did the student group take to address the concerns with university officials and what kind of response did they receive back?
TYSON LANGHOFER: After Grace Christian Life was stopped from speaking in September, they contacted us and asked us to look at the policy, and to give them our opinion on whether it was constitutional. We reviewed it and determined that it was unconstitutional. So, we prepared a letter to the university and laid out our concerns, and requested that they revise the policy, and even told them that we would work with them to enact a new constitutional policy. They sent a letter back, and responded that they believed the policy was constitutional, and that they were going to maintain that same policy. The student group at that point in time didn’t really have any choice but to take some further legal action to protect their rights.
JOHN RUSTIN: One of the things that ADF is arguing in the complaint is that NC State’s permit policy violates Grace Christian Life’s constitutionally protected right to freedom of speech. Explain for our listeners a little bit more about that, how does this policy in particular violate their free speech rights.
TYSON LANGHOFER: Speech isn’t free if you have to request permission prior to doing so. That’s the basic line argument. Essentially, what the university is saying is if you want to talk with other students, we’re going to require that you have a permit to do so. And the problem with doing that is that especially with a policy like this, there are no guidelines. There are no objective criteria for the university to determine which speech to allow and which speech not to allow. And those policies where it’s called “unbridled discretion,” where essentially a government official is given the authority to make decisions based upon their own beliefs, based upon their own predilections, how are you going to feel about this speech and allow the university to decide which speech to allow and which not to allow. So essentially this type of policy is called a “prior restraint.” It’s, you can think of it as a citizen if you were out on a public street and you were talking with others and a police officer came up, and said hey you can’t talk, you can’t engage in oral speech with a passerby, or you can’t hand out this pamphlet, and we know those types of restrictions have consistently been struck down as unconstitutional by every court from the United States Supreme Court and on down.
JOHN RUSTIN: The lawsuit also contends that NC State is applying the permit policy in a “discriminatory manner” really against this Christian student group as compared to other similarly situated groups and organizations on campus. Talk about that for a minute, what was the experience of Grace Christian Life as far as the university officials treating them one way but treating others in a different way.
TYSON LANGHOFER: Grace Christian Life members, after they had this encounter, they were really surprised to learn about this because these students are there in the student union and they’re sitting there talking to friends, and when they are engaged by other people who come up and hand them material and talk to them about various causes or events. And so they knew that this was very common and they had never heard about anybody being required to have a permit. And so after this incident they just began paying attention to it, and they realized there were lots of people coming up and engaging with them, and they would ask them “Hey, do you have a permit for this?” And the response universally throughout was, “No, we don’t have a permit for this. You don’t need a permit to speak with others in the student union.” And not a single group that had talked to them during that time indicated that they had a permit. And, another incidence of this is there is a policy, which allows students groups to reserve a table in a certain area in the student union, and you can set up your table and put up your banners and then talk with students. And our group was told that when you do that, when you reserve a table, you’re not allowed to leave or go out from behind from the table, but they would consistently see other student groups who had tables who would go and engage with students out in the hallway or in other areas of the student union, and they were never stopped. But when our group would do that they were consistently stopped by university administrators and told that they could not go out from behind the table and speak with others. And so we believer this policy, the evidence shows that this policy’s being applied in an unconstitutional manner because it’s discriminating against Grace Christian Life and the religious viewpoint that they’re expressing.
JOHN RUSTIN: I know from reading the complaint that it was not just a situation where various student groups were assembled, and they were reaching out to speak with and share information with other students, but that the school officials, the one in particular who was in charge of overseeing this speech policy, was actually available and in the student union while these differing activities were taking place. And so it wasn’t just that hey this group was here, they were kind of getting away with doing something we were told we couldn’t do, when in fact the actual school officials were there and should have been, if they were acting in a fair manner, applying the policy the same toward this group as it would have other groups.
TYSON LANGHOFER: That’s absolutely correct. Unfortunately, the same officials that were enforcing this policy against our group were present during the time that Grace Christian Life viewed these other groups going out there and speaking with students. And we believe that all groups should be able to do that. The student union this was recently remodeled, it’s a beautiful union now and it has more than 10,000 visitors a day; it’s designed to be the campus hub of activity where students can come and hang out and interact with other students. And so we believe that all student groups, regardless of their viewpoint, should be able to go and engage with students on campus, and tell them about what’s going on and engage in conversations with them. It’s unconstitutional for a university official to apply this policy in a manner, which discriminates against certain viewpoints and allows one group to do something that they’re not allowing the other group to do.
JOHN RUSTIN: Why do you think that’s taking place at NC State? I mean we’re in Raleigh, the North Carolina Family Policy Council is, and a lot of our listeners may have graduated from NC State, or are fans of the university. What do you think has motivated these school officials to treat this Christian group separate from others? And as this lawsuit moves forward, how important do you believe this lawsuit is for the future of student rights and speech privileges on university and college campuses across North Carolina?
TYSON LANGHOFER: It’s difficult to read into why certain officials take certain action, but I know in the communications that the university has indicated that they’re trying to maintain a quote “inclusive environment,” and I think in today’s day and age, we know that religion is viewed as being exclusive, or it’s going to offend somebody, and I’m guessing based upon those things it appears that the university would be trying to stop any speech, which they would view as being exclusive, or to cause somebody to feel uncomfortable. And that’s, frankly very different from the purpose of the First Amendment. The purpose of the First Amendment is to protect speech that the majority may not like, that people would have a tendency to exclude, and that’s why the First Amendment is there. As far as the importance of this case, it’s very important for a lot of reasons. First of all, the Supreme Court has great precedent on these types of issues that, as you said, that the marketplace of ideas should be protected on the university, and that there is no support in the Constitution for the ability to restrict ideas and restrict expression on the university, and in fact that’s where we should have the height of this freedom for students as they’re learning to engage in our society, to hear all sorts of ideas to determine what they believe is the truth. And so if these types of policies, like NC State maintains, are upheld student’s rights on campus would be greatly restricted, and it would greatly detract from the ability these kids have to engage in this marketplace of ideas that has been protected for so long by our Constitution.
JOHN RUSTIN: Tyson we’re unfortunately just about out of time, but before we leave I do want to give you an opportunity to let our listeners know where they can go to learn more about Alliance Defending Freedom, about this important case dealing with student free speech rights on campus, and where folks can avail themselves of other resources that ADF has available.
TYSON LANGHOFER: Anyone who is interested in these topics and in what ADF does they can go to www.adflegal.org and we’ve got a bunch of great information and resources on there about what students’ rights are on campus, what students’ rights are in high schools, what if you on faculty in a public university, what are your rights on campus, and you can also learn more about this case and the other cases that we have going on.
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