U.S. Department of Justice Backs Christian College Student Told Preaching ‘Disturbing the Peace’

Photo Credit: Georgia Gwinnett College/Facebook

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Justice has filed a statement of interest in favor of a Christian college student who was told last year that he couldn’t preach in a campus free speech zone after officials received complaints that his speaking was “disturbing people’s peace and tranquility.”

“[A] public college that restricts speech simply because it might offend some listeners violates the tenet of content neutrality by codifying a ‘heckler’s veto,'” wrote Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore. “GGC’s sole stated justification for shutting down Mr. Uzuegbunam’s religious expression in the speech zone fails for precisely the same reason: it rests on ‘a listener’s reaction to speech,’ not the speech itself.”

Chike Uzuegbunam, a student at Georgia Gwinnett College (GGC), sought in July 2016 to distribute tracts and engage in one-on-one conversations with other students outside of the school library. However, he was soon approached by college officials and informed that he could only engage in expressive activity in one of two free speech zones, and only with a permit.

Uzuegbunam then went through the proper channels and proceeded with his evangelistic endeavors in a designated free speech zone weeks later, but this time, also preaching to passersby. He says that he did not use any amplification, nor were his words inflammatory, but he rather simply presented the gospel to students.

“Mr. Uzuegbunam began by discussing the brevity of life and how all men and women have fallen short of God’s commands,” Uzuegbunam’s legal challenge reads. “He continued by explaining how Jesus Christ had come to earth to die on the cross and rise again from the dead in order to provide men and women the only means of obtaining salvation and eternal life. He also explained how this gift of eternal life is available to all by God’s grace and that it is the only way to avoid the penalty for our sins.”

However, approximately 20 minutes later, he was again approached by college officials, who this time told him that complaints had been received that he was disturbing students’ “peace and tranquility,” and that he must therefore stop preaching. Failure to do so would constitute disorderly conduct, Uzuegbunam was warned.

He visited the Office of Student Integrity to speak further with officials, but was advised that it is a violation of school policy to express a “fire and brimstone message” in any form, including in the free speech zones.

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However, according to his lawsuit, GGC officials have allowed other students to engage in loud and offensive speech without interference simply because no one complained.

“Defendants have allowed students to engage in offensive forms of speech, including the broadcasting of vulgar, lewd, and obscene music, but stopped Plaintiff from speaking publicly, claiming that someone’s complaint converted his expression into ‘disorderly conduct,’” the lawsuit reads.

Uzuegbunam has not since engaged in open-air preaching on campus as students could complain again.

He is seeking a declaratory judgment from the courts that the college violated his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, as well as an injunction against the school’s free speech policy as it pertains to his religious expression.

The U.S. Department of Justice, in filing its statement of interest this week, contended that dissatisfaction of the hearers is insufficient reasoning for the silencing of free speech.

“GGC officials branded Mr. Uzuegbunam’s speech as ‘disorderly conduct’ under the Student Code of Conduct because it ‘disturb[ed] the peace and/or comfort of person(s).’ This ‘mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness’ among listeners is not a compelling government interest, let alone sufficient to justify the content-based restriction of Mr. Uzuegbunam’s religious speech,” it wrote.

“Instead, GGC applied a ‘heckler’s veto’ that allowed every listener to become a regulator unto himself and to shut down expression simply because the listener found it ‘uncomfortable,'” the filing continued. “For this reason alone, GGC’s content-based restriction fails strict scrutiny, and Plaintiffs have adequately pleaded claims under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.”

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  • bowie1

    I remember an occasion more than 30 years ago of walking downtown Toronto on the corner of Yonge and Dundas there was a preacher sharing his message, but there were also several Muslim men handing out Islamic Paperbacks, and a Hare Khrishna pressing a book into my hand which was as thick as a phone book with abstract designs on the cover. If I don’t like what I see or hear I simply move on and let people be.

    • Reason0verhate

      Agree. But according to the atheists who lurk around Christian blogs 24/7, the most horrible thing in their lives are religious people evangelizing door to door. In my neighborhood it’s a common thing for the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons to go door to door – but then again, it’s also common for lawn cutters, roofers, tree pruners, and driveway pavers to go door to door drumming up business. My usual response is simply not to answer the door, and if I happen to be in the yard and can’t avoid them, I just politely tell them I’m not interested.

      Our culture has become so hostile to Christianity that the bashers seem to believe they have some “right” never to see or hear anything remotely Christian.

      • james blue

        I’m not an Atheist. We have a “no soliciting” sign at the entrance to our driveway and another next to our front door immediately below the bell button. We do not get contractors or vendors knocking (pity we can’t stop the junk mail), but we do get the religious folks. They appear to think the signs don’t apply to them.

        I am absolutely fine with “street preachers” and if the details above are accurate side with the speaker in the article. I would side with him regardless of his speech, but my home is not a free speech zone and not ‘fair game” for anyone wishing to share their message, no matter what that message is

        • Kaz

          Driveway to what?

          • james blue

            Oh look, a troll.

        • bowie1

          We also have a similar sign and they are always welcome to stick some literature in our mail box.

          • james blue

            I responded earlier,but forgot this site doesn’t allow links and my response is in “moderation limbo, so here it is again.

            I’m talking about junk mail that comes in the post. We no longer get those flyers they attach to the door, which can be an excellent indicator of an empty house for a potential burglar. The only ones to ignore the signs are the faith based door knockers

            It is illegal to put non mail flyers into mailboxes.

            I did link to the USPS site where is quotes the law, that is what put the reply on hold.

          • bowie1

            I’m from Canada so the laws may be different here but I don’t know. We do get the occasional door hangers and also in the past electricity sellers. Of course we get junk mail as think as the phone book!

          • Lee Cumbie

            It seems these groups always forget the part where Jesus told all of the disciples he sent out (multiple times, multiple groups) to spread the good news, but if they didn’t want to hear it, to shake the dust off their sandals (a rebuke, I know) and move on. Jesus never advocated any forceful, in your face, proselytizing that I am aware of.

      • Jerome Horwitz

        But according to the atheists who lurk around Christian blogs 24/7, the most horrible thing in their lives are religious people.

        Fixed it for you.

      • Eldrida Urika

        There are 2 kinds of Christians. Some that go to do God’s Work that end up as a negative story on the Media from behavior issues.
        Then there are some Christian who also do God’s Work but are trying to truly live the life of Jesus and do not want the media in their lives. They just want to be Christ-like and try to reflect his image so they can have more people come to the churches and believe. They are loving, caring people who would, as we used to say about Christians, They would “give you the shirt off their backs”, if you need it. That is to say, The people who give without giving it a cost and expect no return. There also used to be a term “good Christian people”.
        Some of the beliefs of some of the churches are not directed at the more humble Christians, and they are the ones that believe we must bring people to Jesus by pointing out their sin and eternal damnation so they will want to know how to be saved. There are all types of people that turn to the Lord for all kinds of reasons, and I believe that the Lord directs us to what belief/church is best for us, as an individual.

        We are not judged by our beliefs as much as by our behavior as that is what shows our heart is pure. That is what is supposed to stand out as followers of Jesus. Jesus pointed out that we are the light of the world and there can be no darkness in light, so if we are a light for Jesus, we will have no evil intent in our hearts. If we show our lights others will appreciate it because it is not of this world, and will stand out, and people will want to go to church to find out what made us the people we are.
        The reason too many people hate Christians is because of the way some Christians believe they should behave towards people who are obvious sinners. They are ignoring that we are all sinners and often treat the sinners badly because of their sin. They take it to an extreme and will not allow them to have any sort of a life, unless they repent and I guess join a church.
        At one time this way of bringing people to Christ did work, and I believe it brought many to Churches because they were ashamed from the rebuking and were finding things in their lives were made difficult once people knew of their sin. So they publicly repented to be forgiven not just by Jesus, but by the people who were rebuking him and making his life difficult. Of course that would often be enough to stop the rebuking.
        In today’s world of equal rights, this behavior does not work. There are laws to stop that kind of shaming. It is a wrong approach to shame people publicly and should be discussed not loudly rebuked. People generally will be more likely to repent of their sins, if they are told about Salvation by repentance with the assurance of what Jesus has promised to those who follow him. If they are told about sin as part of Salvation, it it not something we will feel defensive about. But it will still make them consider the whole of Salvation, without feeling demeaned, or in any way defensive.
        By telling them about Salvation we are showing the love we are to be feeling about the sinner. Some say Love the sinner, hate the sin, for instance. I agree, but if it is too much rebuke for someone who is not a believer, it will not make them want to know more.
        If people randomly treat them badly for their sin, they will not know the Love of Jesus and want to be like the ones to treat them badly.
        Why would anyone want to become like the person who was telling them they would go to hell. A lot of people do not know what repenting is, and without the salvation offered, it means nothing. It means that we want to be treated like gods and have this/these people ask them for their forgiveness. Without knowing Jesus, they do not know what they are being told about except about that place everyone knows called Hell.

        There are a lot of good people out there who are not Christians as well as some not so good who are Christians. There was a saying “that’s what makes the world go ’round”. It would be a boring world if we were all the same in every way.

        With one set of believers getting in the media – usually negatively, those are the ones that people talk about and begin to think that they should be haters back to them. There are too many people who think it is ok to deny obvious sinners simple comforts because of their sin. I was taught that all punishment is to be left to God, but these people speak to the “sinners” as a way to stand up for Jesus, not realizing, I guess, that Jesus would not act the way they are acting. He never did things to shame individuals for their sin, it was aimed at everyone when he taught about sin. Not one sin, but many sins.
        It is recommended that we keep being who we are in Christ and start stating to others that we do not have the same beliefs so we will not be acting badly towards them for their sins. Jesus never acted badly towards the people who interacted with Jesus about their sins, and he always showed them love, not making the sin the major thing.
        This what I have understood from my own interest in why others feel hate for people who are told by Jesus to love each other.
        I pray this will help you to understand why Christians are though of with hate.

  • Jerome Horwitz

    Wow. What this college is engaging in is 100% pure, flat censorship. I am glad the DOJ has his back on this and I hope he takes them to the cleaners over this.

  • Reason2012

    Feigning possible “offense” by others is the tactic the fascists use to curtail free speech, nullify the Constitution of the United States of America, and get away with it.

  • Michael C

    I’m all for free speech for students on campus and I don’t think they should be required to apply for a permit. However, for how long at what volume can a person exercise their rights before they’re told to dial it down a notch?

    • james blue

      Doesn’t say he used amplification. The only hing I can think where I would side with the school would be if he wasn’t simply talking, but was harassing people and not stopping if they asked him to leave them alone.

      • Michael C

        Doesn’t say he used amplification.

        People can be loud without an amplifier. I would think it perfectly acceptable to ask someone to stop yelling on school grounds.

        • james blue

          Pretty sure it doesn’t mention him yelling either, it does say “GGC officials have allowed other students to engage in loud and
          offensive speech without interference simply because no one complained”, but not that he did.
          He was handing out tracts so I think he may have been approaching people, possibly unwanted approaching,

          • Michael C

            Pretty sure it doesn’t mention him yelling either,…

            This article doesn’t mention anything about it. I’ve read other things elsewhere;

            “State attorneys contend Uzuegbunam was given permission at least three times to reserve a speech zone for as long as six hours. They stated in court pleadings that in one instance, he stood atop a stool, proselytizing so loudly that he disrupted students who were eating, studying or socializing nearby, resulting in multiple calls to campus police. They said that school administrators did not seek to silence Uzuegbunam because he was a Christian but because he was creating a disturbance.”

          • james blue

            Fair enough