Conservative Group Welcomes DOJ Involvement in Campus Speech Case

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By Melissa Heelan Stanzione

The Department of Justice’s decision to take an active role in defending campus free speech garnered praise from a Christian legal group pursuing these claims.

“This is a very welcome effort from DOJ to stand up for the First Amendment on campus,” Casey Mattox, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom, told Bloomberg BNA.

The issue of campus speech has drawn media attention this year after violence erupted at several schools about speeches by conservative figures.

On Sept. 26, the DOJ filed a statement of interest in a campus free-speech case, arguing that the plaintiffs “adequately represented violations of their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.” Alliance Defending Freedom represents the plaintiffs in the case.

The DOJ’s filing coincided with a speech Sessions gave at Georgetown University Law Center also on the topic of campus speech. The speech drew protests from students and professors over the Trump administration’s handling of hot-button immigration, racial and free-speech issues.

Sessions also issued a written statement with the DOJ filing: “A national recommitment to free speech on campus and to ensuring First Amendment rights is long overdue. Which is why, starting today, the Department of Justice will do its part in this struggle. We will enforce federal law, defend free speech, and protect students’ free expression.”

AG Linked to Group

Sessions has ties with Alliance Defending Freedom. The attorney general gave a closed-door speech July 11 to the group, which stirred some controversy among the group’s detractors.

Mattox, senior counsel and the director of the Center for Academic Freedom with ADF, says the group didn’t know in advance the DOJ’s decision to become involved in the case, Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski.

Mattox believes the DOJ became involved in this particular case because of the particular facts.

“It’s an egregious example of the kinds of violations of students’ right around the country,” he said.

At the time Sessions gave the private speech in July, the progressive Southern Poverty Law Center criticized the move, describing ADF as an “anti-LGBT hate group.”

Michael Farris, president and general counsel for ADF, told Bloomberg BNA in July that the AG’s speech indicated a changed relationship between the executive branch and social conservatives.

Motives for Involvement

Mattox said he believes DOJ was prompted to weigh in on the case because of the school’s “disturbing understanding” of the First Amendment.

Plaintiffs Chike Uzuegbunam and Joseph Bradford, students at Georgia Gwinnett College, sued the school in federal district court in December 2016. Uzuegbunam says he was prohibited from distributing Christian literature on campus except for certain free speech zones that the complaint says covers a tiny fraction of the campus.

The school’s policy limiting freedom of expression chills protected speech and disables spontaneous speech, a violation of the First Amendment’s free speech and free exercise of religion clauses, the plaintiffs allege.

There was a “very tiny” speech zone on campus—a patio—where students could speak freely, Mattox said.

Even then, they had to get the school’s permission to use it, and when they spoke, the school regulated what they could say, he said.

Furthermore, during litigation, the school argued that talking about one’s faith on a public university campus “may be tantamount to fighting words,” Mattox said.

This would mean that talking about faith could be prohibited by the government, he said.

The Georgia attorney general’s office, which is representing the school, declined to comment Sept. 26 because the ligation is ongoing.

Volatile Year

The debate over campus speech has intensified this year after violent protests at schools have led school administrators to seek to curtail the unrest.

Students at Middlebury College in May protested when the school invited a conservative author, Charles Murray, to speak, calling him a racist, and attacked his car as he was trying to leave.

Another conservative writer, Ann Coulter, canceled a planned speech at the University of California, Berkeley, in April over fears of violence. In February, riots broke out on that campus to protest the invitation of another right-wing media personality, Milo Yiannopoulos.

There needs to be a change, Mattox said.

“Right now, universities aren’t fostering a respect for free speech values,” he said.

As a result, when these students graduate, “we’ll have a culture that doesn’t appreciate the First Amendment,” Mattox said.

We need to learn to listen to people we disagree with and allow them to have their voice,” he said.

“That’s what this country’s built on,” Mattox said.

Those who protested Sessions’s Sept. 26 speech at Georgetown questioned whether the Trump administration had such an expansive view of free speech rights.

A statement from Georgetown law professors noted that Sessions serves in the cabinet of an administration that spent the past weekend criticizing National Football League players for engaging in free expression by kneeling during the national anthem to protest police treatment of minorities.

Sessions told the audience at one point that players have a right to speak out, but were in effect denigrating a national symbol by doing so during the “Star Spangled Banner.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Melissa Heelan Stanzione in Washington at mstanzione@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at jkamens@bna.com

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