Federal Judge Halts Free-Speech ‘Permits’ for Christian Club at NC State University

Grace Christian Life argued before a federal judge that university administrators singled them out for enforcement of a student speech policy, which university officials deny.

Talley Student Center on the campus of North Carolina State University.
Talley Student Center on the campus of North Carolina State University. (photo: dudapaine.com)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A Christian campus ministry has won its first round with North Carolina State University, after a federal judge ordered a halt to the public university’s requirement that student groups obtain permits to engage in non-commercial student speech.

Grace Christian Life, a Christian student organization at N.C. State, argued that administration officials had unfairly applied the speech-permitting policy to them and not to other student groups as well, in the Talley Student Union building.

Chief district Judge James Dever of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, issued the preliminary injunction on June 4 barring N.C. State’s enforcement of the student policy in most campus areas other than housing.

Dever accepted most of the Christian group’s factual narrative, and his order stated that it demonstrated the students were “likely to succeed on the merits” of the claim that the speech-permitting policy was a violation of their First Amendment rights. He concluded that injunction of the policy for the duration of the suit was “in the public interest,” and that without it, Grace Christian Life was “likely to suffer irreparable harm.”

“We’re hopeful that this will be resolved sooner rather than later,” said Tyson Langhofer, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, a public interest firm that is helping to represent the student group.

Langhofer told the Register that the university is expected to file its answer to the judge’s order within the next 10-15 days, and that will determine the next steps of the case.

Hannalee Alrutz, president of Grace Christian Life, told the Register that the student organization has been active on campus for more than 20 years and had no problems reaching out to students in the Talley Student Union building until the fall 2015 semester.

“We’re on a mission to show people who Jesus Christ is,” she said. “We love to engage students in one-on-one conversations on the Bible and about spiritual issues.”

She also did not recall their student group doing anything differently in the way they approached people before fall 2015, and during that semester.

“It’s just like any regular conversation you would have in a public place,” she said. “I would walk up to a student, sitting down or walking from class, and say, ‘Hello, I’m Hannalee, and we’re going around campus praying for people.”

Alrutz said Grace Christian Life representatives explain that they believe in the power of prayer, believing it is a way to show people they love them. She added that they also ask people if they have a belief in God and would be interested in knowing more about him and having a personal relationship with Jesus.


Singled Out?

Alliance Defending Freedom’s Langhofer explained that the trouble began when an administrator at the student union building told one of Grace Christian Life’s members and a staff member of the church that they are affiliated with that they needed to obtain a permit to conduct conversations on campus.

The university’s broad student-speech policy — now on hold — includes oral communications and states 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.”

“They were really surprised about that, because there are more than 15,000 visitors a day in Talley, and this type of conversation and interactions happen thousands of times a day,” Langhofer said.

Langhofer said Grace Christian Life’s members later concluded that they had been singled out from other student groups by the administrator, after inquiring whether other members had permits to conduct conversation in the student union building. The answer was: “No.”

“That really opened their eyes: that they’re the only group (that we’re aware of) that had been stopped just for engaging in conversations inside of Talley,” he said.

Langhofer said that the Christian group was also told in January that its permit to set up a table inside the student building required members to stay behind their table. But they observed other members of student groups leave their tables to engage in interactions with other students.

“They were doing this in full view of the administrators and were never being stopped,” he said.

“We just want them to have a policy that includes not having to have a permit to conduct conversations, whether it’s inside or outside the student union,” Langhofer explained.


University’s Position

However, the university pushed back against the claim that the Christian student group had been given different treatment, saying that any notion Grace Christian Life was singled out because it was a religious group is “simply not true.”

“N.C. State has a long history of supporting faith and religious activities on campus, including 60 current religious and faith-based student groups and churches that hold regular weekly meetings and services,” Fred Hartman, the university’s spokesman, told the Register in an email. “We have tremendous support from religious and faith-based organizations on campus.”

Hartman noted Grace Christian Life has “taken full advantage of the university’s open environment” for many years, utilizing space in the Talley Student Union more than 190 times during the 2015-2016 academic year and has space confirmed already in the student union building for “more than 60 times” in the upcoming academic year.

Hartman also mentioned that other faith-based and religious groups, including the Presbyterian Campus Ministry and the Muslim Student Association, have given them “tremendous support” since the issue developed with Grace Christian Life.

“N.C. State not only protects, but also defends, the right of free speech for Grace Christian Life and all groups committed to the open exchange of ideas, regardless of beliefs, viewpoints or messages,” Hartman said.

Hartman said the university is committed to the free exchange of ideas on its campus, does not intend to prohibit student conversations and maintains it had “never been applied in that manner.”

“The issue is really about a simple administrative process the university uses to schedule hundreds of solicitation requests,” he said. “This process ensures groups have equal access to the space to conduct their activities, permits the free flow of pedestrian traffic in and out of buildings, and allows educational activities to continue without disruption.”


First Amendment Issues

But Azhar Majeed, an analyst at the Foundation for Rights in Education (FIRE), said he did not see how the judge could have come to a decision otherwise on the student speech-permit policy, since public universities are subject to U.S. constitutional protections of free speech.

“You don’t have to be a First Amendment attorney to realize there is something wrong with this policy,” he said.

However, Majeed said N.C. State’s policy is not much of an outlier, in terms of university restrictions on student speech that FIRE has had to address.

He pointed to FIRE’s 2013 national survey of public and private universities that found one out of six institutions maintained “some type of free-speech-zone policy or other type of restriction, in terms of where on campus and when students can speak freely.”

“That, of course, is alarming in and of itself,” he said.

FIRE is planning a follow-up survey in 2016 to evaluate whether the current landscape for free speech at universities has seen any substantial change.

Majeed added that, in his experience, the leadership of universities they work with explain that the main target of their policies is not actually students and employees, but is motivated by “valid concerns” about safety, disruption and potential for offense from outside groups or individuals seeking to come on campus.

“It’s perfectly reasonable to say that someone who is not affiliated with the university needs to provide a heads-up to the administration or obtain a permit to speak on campus,” Majeed said, “but there’s no reason that students should be regulated under the same kind of rationale.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.