Published On: Tue, Jun 7th, 2016

NC State’s ‘permit’ for student speech halted by federal court

A federal court Saturday ordered a halt to North Carolina State University’s policy that requires a permit for nearly any kind of non-commercial student speech or communication anywhere on campus. The order came only two days after a hearing at which Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys and allied attorneys asked the court to halt the policy after the university told members of a Christian student group that they needed a permit to speak with other students in the student union. The university did not require other student groups to obtain such permit.

“Because the only permit required for free speech on a public university campus is the First Amendment, we welcome the court’s decision to put a stop to NC State’s policy,” said ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer. “NC State is acting inconsistently with its own calling as a marketplace of ideas with this unconstitutional restriction on free speech. Students of any political, religious, or ideological persuasion should be able to freely and peacefully speak with their fellow students about their views without interference from government officials who may prefer one view over another.”

photo Jennifer Moo via Flickr

photo Jennifer Moo via Flickr

ADF-allied attorney Edmund LaCour of Bancroft PLLC, who is serving as co-counsel in the lawsuit, Grace Christian Life v. Woodson, argued before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina in favor of the preliminary injunction that the court granted. The injunction prohibits the university from enforcing its policy against the non-commercial speech of students and their guests in most situations while the lawsuit moves forward in court.

Grace Christian Life “has established that (1) it is likely to succeed on the merits of its claim that North Carolina State University’s Non-Commercial Solicitation policy (including the permit requirement in the policy) facially violates the First Amendment; (2) it is likely to suffer irreparable harm absent preliminary relief; (3) the balance of the equities tips in plaintiff’s favor; and (4) a preliminary injunction is in the public interest…,” the preliminary injunction order states, adding that the university “shall not impose restrictions on any forms of Non-Commercial Solicitation because of the content or viewpoint of the expression or the possible reaction to the expression.” The order applies to all non-disruptive student speech outside of housing facilities.

The university only selectively enforces its permit policy and did so against Grace Christian Life, a registered student organization, when officials told members of the group that they needed a permit to speak with other students in the student union.

In September 2015, NC State officials informed students with the group that, without a permit, they must stop approaching other students in the Talley Student Union to engage in religious discussions with them or invite them to attend Grace Christian Life events.

The group obtained a permit to set up a table in the student union in January and were told at the time the permit was issued that they could speak with other students from behind the table or anywhere in the room; however, when they left the table on the permitted date, a member of the Student Involvement Office approached them and told them they must stay behind the table.

The university has not placed the same restriction on other groups. In fact, Grace Christian Life members observed and documented numerous other groups freely speaking with other students and handing out literature either without a permit or outside of the area reserved by their table permit—sometimes in full view of the same officials that stopped Grace Christian Life from doing the same.

The regulation now on hold is University Regulation 07.25.12, a policy that requires a permit for any form of commercial or non-commercial speech, which the policy broadly defines as “any distribution of leaflets, brochures, or other written material, or oral speech to a passersby (sic)….” The policy specifies that any person “wishing to conduct any form of solicitation on University premises must have the written permission of the Student Involvement [Office] in advance.” Depending on the location of the proposed activity, the speaker may also have to obtain the permission of the administrator responsible for the facility or location where the activity is to be held.

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