News by VICE

DOJ steps in to defend student's right to tell other students they're going to hell

by Tess Owen
Sep 28 2017, 3:11pm

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new focus for Trump’s Justice Department Tuesday — saving the nation’s colleges from becoming “an echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.”

To get the ball rolling, Sessions said the DOJ will step in to champion the struggle of an evangelical student at Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, Georgia, as part of a larger initiative to defend the freedom of speech on college campuses.

The little-known case involves a student, 24-year-old Chike Uzuegbunam, who wanted to evangelize on campus but was stopped under the school’s free speech policies, which prohibit “fire and brimstone” rhetoric and relegate all public speech to designated “free speech zones.”

It’s relatively unheard of for the Justice Department to get involved in free speech issues, according to William Yeomans, former deputy assistant attorney general who spent 26 years at the DOJ, given that free speech debates tend to be so inherently political.

“I can’t think of a good precedent,” said Yeomans. “We have an attorney general who is a culture warrior. This has become this great grievance among conservatives – that they are losing expression rights on campuses.”

But what couches this case and keeps it from being a purely partisan free speech issue is the religious liberty aspect. Yeomans notes that it’s not unusual, particularly under Republican-led administrations, for the DOJ to intervene in cases involving religious freedom.

As Sessions delivered his remarks at Georgetown Law School on Tuesday, the DOJ simultaneously filed a statement of interest in Uzuegbunam’s case.

“Colleges and universities must protect free speech and may not discriminate out of a concern that listeners might find the content of speech offensive or uncomfortable,” the statement of interest reads. “In this case, the United States has a heightened interest because the Plaintiffs’ First Amendment claims are intertwined with allegations of disparate treatment based on religion.”

Uzuegbunam’s troubles began in July 2016, when campus police apprehended him distributing religious literature outside the library. After asking him to stop, they took him to the college office that handles campus free speech issues in order to educate him about the school’s policy.

The following month, Uzuegbunam submitted his request form to the college, hoping to reserve a Free Speech Zone on three separate days from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. According to court documents, school officials thought that Uzuegbunam would use his time in the Free Speech Zone to hand out pamphlets and talk one-on-one with interested students, which is what members of other religious groups, like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, do when they reserve the space.

Of course, that’s not what happened on Aug. 25, 2016, when Uzuegbunam and his friend arrived at the Free Speech Zone, which is located next to the campus food court where other students were “congregating to eat and socialize.”

While his friend prayed, Uzuegbunam stood on a stool and began to publicly evangelize about how “all men and women have fallen short of God’s commands.” He’d been speaking for about 20 minutes when he was again approached by campus police, who told him that students had complained about his conduct.

Mark Barneycastle, an assistant part-time minister at Gwinnett’s collegiate ministry, told VICE News that his experiences with both the school and nonreligious students had been “really positive.” Barneycastle, who was familiar with Uzuegbunam, hadn’t seen him preaching but said he could understand why students might have complained.

A YouTube video posted on Aug. 2 offers a glimpse into Uzuegbunam’s preaching style. In the video, Uzuegbunam, standing outside a Bank of America on the Upper West Side, evangelizes loudly against the “cesspool of depravity” that is New York, and heckling passers-by.

“You’re hungering, you’re thirsting, your souls are thirsting after sin,” he tells a group of teenage boys wearing jerseys and holding basketballs. “You’re thirsting after pornography and you’ll never be satisfied. Corruption, all kinds of greed, loneliness … You’re thirsting after a basketball career.”

The type of rhetoric described in court documents and displayed in the video falls under what Gwinnett considers a “fire-and-brimstone message” — one that tells people they’re going to hell — a violation of school policy.

Uzuegbunam, who is being represented by lawyers from the religious liberty legal heavyweight Alliance Defending Freedom, is arguing that the school’s definition of “disorderly conduct” is overly broad and violated his constitutional rights.

The school says its disorderly conduct policy doesn’t violate anyone’s First Amendment free speech rights. “Georgia Gwinnett College believes that the rights set forth in the First Amendment are of the utmost importance,” Asia Hauter from the school’s public relations office said in a statement. “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.“