When a person’s First Amendment freedoms are suppressed or taken away, they have been deprived of their most core, fundamental American rights. While monetary harm may not exist, the person has certainly suffered harm. Thanks to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Americans can now hold officials accountable when their rights are violated, even if there was no monetary harm and even if the violation of these rights has ceased.
This U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) ruling came in the case of Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, where Georgia Gwinnett College student Chike Uzeugbunam was prevented from sharing his faith on campus, both by a college policy and by policy officers. Alliance Defending Freedom represented Chike in his case, and ADF senior counsel Tyson Langhofer joins host Traci DeVette Griggs on this week’s Family Policy Matters radio show and podcast to discuss Chike’s case, the recent SCOTUS ruling, and what this means for First Amendment freedoms going forward.
“The college initially argued that Chike’s speech was actually unprotected, that it was akin to fighting words,” says Langhofer. “And then the [district] court waited until Chike graduated and then it dismissed the case because they said that Chike no longer had any damages, because the school had changed their policy. But what the court did not do is recognize that the college officials had violated Chike’s rights when they stopped him from speaking twice because of the content of the speech.”
Chike’s victory at the Supreme Court has important ramifications for Free Speech cases going forward; it affirms that just because one disagrees with another’s words, that doesn’t mean they can silence them. Furthermore, courts can no longer dismiss cases like Chike’s simply because the plaintiff didn’t suffer any monetary harm. SCOTUS’s ruling recognizes the immeasurable value of every America’s rights to speech, religious expression, and more.
“We as Christians and conservatives have to recognize that the freedom of speech will allow other people on the other side to say things that we really disagree with, that may violate our core beliefs,” Langhofer concludes. “But if their rights to say that are not protected, then our rights will not be as well. We have to have that; we have to recognize the right of other people to disagree.”
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Tyson Langhofer discuss ADF’s recent victory, and why First Amendment freedoms are more important than ever in our nation.
TRACI GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. First Amendment Rights are a hallmark of our nation’s Constitution, protecting the free exercise of religion and the freedom of speech, among others. When these foundational freedoms are taken away or trampled, citizens have the right to seek justice through our nation’s courts. One recent U.S. Supreme Court case addressed the question of whether government officials should be held accountable when they violate constitutionally-protected freedoms, even if the violation is no longer taking place.
Well, one such case came before the nation’s highest court at the beginning of this year. The case dealt with free speech rights on the campus of Georgia Gwinnett College, where school officials stopped a student from sharing his faith in 2016. This courageous student sought justice for this violation of his First Amendment rights, and in early March of this year, the Supreme Court handed down its ruling.
Joining us today to discuss this case is Tyson Langhofer, senior counsel, and Director of the Center for Academic Freedom with Alliance Defending Freedom.
Tyson Langhofer, welcome back to Family Policy Matters.
TYSON LANGHOFER: Thanks for having me.
TRACI GRIGGS: As we begin, can you briefly remind us what our nation’s Constitution says regarding First Amendment freedoms?
TYSON LANGHOFER: Sure. Well, the First Amendment is rather short. I’ll read it to you and then we’ll talk a little bit about those protections. It says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”—that’s known as the free exercise clause—or “abridging the freedom of speech”—that’s known as the free speech clause—or “of the press”—the press clause—or “of the right of the people peaceably to assemble”—that’s the right to assembly—and “to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” So, there’s this whole panoply of rights that relate to our ability to express ourselves. And for each of those rights, essentially the way that the court has interpreted this is through various cases that have come out through the years. The overarching principle really with each one of those rights is that the government can’t tell individuals that they can’t do certain things when they exercise their religion or when they engage in speech or when they assemble together or when they write something in the press. They can’t tell them, “You can’t do that because we disagree with the viewpoint that you’re expressing or the content of your speech.”
Because what normally happens is you have government that doesn’t like certain types of speech and they say, “Hey, we’re going to enact a law that prohibits you from engaging in that type of speech, while we’re going to allow others to engage in different types of speech.”
TRACI GRIGGS: Thank you for putting that very simply. Well, there was a very important case recently. Could you give us some background on that?
TYSON LANGHOFER: Sure, absolutely. So, we represent Chike Uzuegbunam who was a student at Georgia Gwinnett College back in 2016, and Chike is a Christian and he loves sharing his faith. After class sometimes he would just go out to the sidewalk and began talking with other students that were interested about his Christian faith. And one day he was out on the sidewalk doing that and a college official said, “Hey, you can’t do that here; you have to be in the speech zone.” Well, Chike didn’t know anything about a speech zone so he said, “Tell me about it.” He found out that the school had a policy which limited speech to two very small areas on campus that made up less than one percent of the campus. If you actually took this as a picture, if the campus was a football field, then the two speech zones made up about the size of a piece of paper. And so Chike said, “Well, okay, I’ll do that.” He went and got a reservation to speak in the speech zone. Several days later, he went to the speech zone and began sharing his faith with other students. Several minutes later police officers came and stopped him from speaking because they said that some other students had complained. And it turns out that Georgia Gwinnett also had a policy which made it “disorderly conduct” for a student if other students believe that his speech caused them discomfort. And so they made him stop speaking. After that, Chike contacted us and we filed a lawsuit challenging those two policies.
TRACI GRIGGS: Wow. Well, we know the college campus is not the place where we’re supposed to encounter uncomfortable ideas, don’t we? I mean, I’m being completely facetious. Tell us more, what happened with this case? Something very important recently, correct?
TYSON LANGHOFER: Yeah. So, what happened was after we filed suit the college initially argued that Chike’s speech was actually unprotected; it was akin to fighting words. So his sharing of the gospel, well they originally argued that it was unprotected speech. Now they quickly back down from that, thankfully, but later they amended both of their policies. And then the court waited until Chike graduated and then the court dismissed the case because they said that Chike no longer had any damages, essentially, because the school had changed their policy. But what the court did not do is recognize that the college officials had violated Chike’s rights when they stopped him from speaking twice because of the content of the speech. We appealed that to the 11th Circuit and the 11th Circuit affirmed the district court and said that Chike had no ability to hold those college officials accountable for the violation that they actually engaged in against Chike. We appealed that to the Supreme Court, and just last month the Supreme Court issued a decision in favor of Chike, which held that Chike did have the right to sue college officials, even though he had suffered no monetary harm.
Now, the reason this is really important is because many times when people have their First Amendment rights violated, they don’t have any monetary harm. If you’re just speaking on a sidewalk and a police officer says, “You can’t speak here,” you may not have any monetary harm from that, but there’s no doubt that you’ve suffered harm. You’ve had one of your most core, fundamental American rights violated, and you should be able to hold that government official accountable for violating that right, and that’s what the Supreme Court held.
TRACI GRIGGS: What will happen with this case going forward?
TYSON LANGHOFER: Now we basically go back to the district court because essentially what happened was the district court had dismissed the case prior to Chike being able to prove his harm. And so, we’re back down at the district court and Chike will now have the opportunity to demonstrate that the officials did actually violate his rights when they told him he couldn’t speak on a sidewalk on his own college without their permission, and when they told him that they could shut down his speech because other students didn’t like what he was saying.
TRACI GRIGGS: Is this an issue that you all there at ADF have been seeing more and more of on college and university campuses?
TYSON LANGHOFER: Yeah, I think during this kind of rise in cancel culture over the last four or five years, you are seeing an increasing number of cases where unfortunately students and faculty are pressuring the schools into taking action against other students whose speech they disagree with. And then unfortunately many times that speech is conservative speech or it’s Christian religious speech.
TRACI GRIGGS: If you would, expound a little bit on this concept of free speech, because I think both sides can be guilty of trying to shut down speech that they find offensive. Where’s the line that we’re supposed to draw on this as far as what is free speech and what crosses into speech that is prohibited.
TYSON LANGHOFER: It’s a very narrow area of speech that is actually unprotected speech. And the Supreme Court has basically held that unprotected speech would be fighting words. And that’s words that the normal person would essentially cause them to engage in violence if directed at them. So, it has to be directed at an individual and caused them to engage in violence. Another one would be incitement to imminent violence. So that’s where a group, a crowd gathers and somebody says, “Hey, let’s go burn down that building.” That’s not protected speech. They’re not conveying an idea there; they’re engaging in lawless or encouraging unlawful action. That would be unprotected speech. And then defamation or slander—when you say something untrue about somebody else—that’s unprotected. That’s essentially the narrow scope of that. Everything else, most of what you see today called hate speech is protected speech. And the reason that it has to be so broad is because, as you indicated, we as individuals, we tend to want to censor speech we disagree with on both sides; that’s a normal human tendency. And so, what the Founders have done and what the Supreme Court has done when they look at this, they said, “We have to not allow the government to determine what speech is allowed and what speech is not allowed.” Because we as humans will tend to censor speech we disagree with, and not allow other speech. And that typically falls heavily, more heavily, on speakers that have a minority viewpoint.
TRACI GRIGGS: So many of these cancel culture types of issues don’t ever rise to the level of going to a court. A lot of these infractions happen just between people and small situations. What do we need to do as a nation? I’m asking you kind of a wide question here, but what do we need to do as a nation to begin to address what seems to be a lack of understanding among many people about what free speech actually means in our country?
TYSON LANGHOFER: I think we need two things. First of all, we have to become more tolerant of other people’s right to speak. And tolerance means a lot of things today; it means different things to different people. We as Christians and conservatives have to recognize that the freedom of speech will allow other people on the other side to say things that we really disagree with, that may violate our core beliefs. But if their rights to say that are not protected, then our rights will not be as well. We have to have that; we have to recognize the right of other people to disagree. Secondly, we have to have courage. We have to have the courage of our convictions and recognize that when we say unpopular things, we may have people come against us. But if we believe that it’s grounded in truth, and that it’s important that society abide by that truth, we need to be courageous enough to take some slings and arrows from people if they come at us. And if we do that, I believe that it will help everybody. It will give other people courage to do the same.
TRACI GRIGGS: Talk a little bit about that second point, because I’m sure you get lots of your—more than your—fair share of slings and arrows. What kind of mental process do you go through so that you don’t react badly in that situation?
TYSON LANGHOFER: The process for me is I know that society is better when we live consistent with the reality that God created for us. And that reality, that truth is being suppressed, and people are being harmed because that truth is being suppressed. And so I want to speak the truth because I know it will be helpful to others. And even if that means that I have to come under attack for that, I believe that it’s our duty as Christians to speak that truth so that others, we can help pull them out of the pit and help them avoid that harm. I think we need to put others above ourselves because speaking truth will help others live in consistence with that reality.
TRACI GRIGGS: Right. Let’s talk a little bit about what this important U.S. Supreme Court ruling will do for First Amendment rights going forward.
TYSON LANGHOFER: What this does is it allows more people to be able to hold government officials accountable when they violate their rights. Before, if a lawsuit may have been dismissed because the government officials argue, “You didn’t suffer any monetary harm and therefore your case should be dismissed.” Now a court has to allow that suit to go forward, even though the plaintiff didn’t suffer any monetary harm.
TRACI GRIGGS: Okay, sounds good. Any other similar cases that ADF has working on?
TYSON LANGHOFER: This issue really affects all of our cases because in almost all of our cases, we face a motion to dismiss and the government argues, “You can’t maintain this claim.” And the Supreme Court here has made it very clear that if you allege a government official has violated your rights, you can maintain that claim and have the court rule on it, even if you can’t establish any monetary harm.
TRACI GRIGGS: We’re just about out of time for this week, but before we go, Tyson Langhofer, where can our listeners go to follow the work of Alliance Defending Freedom, and to hear about other cases that you all are working on?
TYSON LANGHOFER: Yeah. You can go to our website at adflegal.org, and that has information about all kinds of cases that are going on, and how you can support our work and the clients that we’re representing.
TRACI GRIGGS: Tyson Langhofer, senior counsel, and Director of the Center for Academic Freedom for Alliance Defending Freedom, thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.
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