The U.S. Department of Justice is backing a Christian student in his lawsuit against a college that prevented him from sharing his faith at a designated free speech zone on campus.
The Justice Department has reportedly filed a statement of interest in favor of Chike Uzuegbunam, who was prevented from distributing tracts and engaging his fellow students in one-on-one conversations on the campus of Georgia Gwinnett College (GGC) in July 2016.
"[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, as reported by Christian News Network.
"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," Gore added.
According to the lawsuit, Uzuegbunam "sought to share his Christian faith peacefully" on the Lawrenceville campus, but he was told by officials that he must seek permission in advance to speak publicly and that he can only do so at one of the two designated "speech zones."
Even though the student had met the requirements, college officials ordered him to stop preaching, claiming that complaints had been received that he was disturbing students' "peace and tranquility."
When he visited the Office of Student Integrity to speak further with officials, he was told that his preaching was a violation of school policy to express a "fire and brimstone message" in any form, including in free speech zones.
The lawsuit, which names GGC President Stas Preczewski and other campus officials as defendants, further claimed that the college had allowed other students to engage in loud and offensive speech without interference simply because no one had complained.
Uzuegbunam is seeking an injunction against GGC's free speech policy as it pertains to religious expression and a declaratory judgment from courts that his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights had been violated by the school.
The Justice Department noted that the school's free-speech zones "totaled 0.0015% of the campus" and that its speech policies "were not content-neutral, established an impermissible heckler's veto, and were not narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest."
In a statement issued on Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions vowed to "enforce federal law, defend free speech, and protect students' free expression."
The lawsuit was filed on Uzuegbunam's behalf by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which specializes in cases involving religious issues such as, religious invocations at public events, religious displays on public property and allowing healthcare workers to refuse performing certain procedures due to their faith.