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Va. college sued for prohibiting student speech

Alliance Defending Freedom challenges unconstitutional policy

Friday, Mar 14, 2014

Attorney sound bites:  Travis Barham  |  David Hacker

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit Thursday on behalf of a student prohibited from engaging in constitutionally protected free speech at Thomas Nelson Community College.

Under a Virginia Community College System speech policy, students must be part of a student organization before they can speak in the open areas of campus. Also, students can only speak in the campus areas that college officials designate, and they must register with the college four days in advance.

“Colleges that are supposed to be the marketplace of ideas should not be censoring or restricting students’ free speech on campus as has occurred here,” said Litigation Staff Counsel Travis Barham. “The First Amendment protects freedom of speech for all students in the outdoor areas of campus, regardless of their religious or political beliefs. They should not have to register with college officials or comply with other arbitrary restrictions to exercise their constitutionally protected freedoms.”

Last September, Thomas Nelson Community College prohibited Christian Parks from expressing his Christian beliefs in a large courtyard of the college. An officer from the college’s police department told him he must stop preaching because the content of his speech might offend someone. School officials then told Parks that his speech violated the Student Code of Conduct and VCCS policies.

The Alliance Defending Freedom lawsuit, Parks v. The Members of the State Board of the Virginia Community College System, explains that sidewalks and open spaces on campus are areas where students have broad free speech rights, including the right to express their views anonymously and spontaneously.

“Especially in these areas, colleges have very limited ability to restrict student speech,” Barham said.

The suit also explains that the First Amendment “prohibits the government from prohibiting or limiting speech because it might offend the sensibilities of listeners, and any governmental attempts to do so are inherently content and/or viewpoint based.” Moreover, “the government may not regulate speech based on policies that permit arbitrary, discriminatory, or overzealous enforcement.”

“Free, spontaneous discourse on college campuses is supposed to be a hallmark of higher education rather than the exception to the rule,” added Senior Legal Counsel David Hacker. “We hope that Virginia Community College System will revise its policy so that students no longer have to jump through unconstitutional hoops to exercise the freedoms that the First Amendment protects.”

Steve Taylor, one of nearly 2,300 allied attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom, is serving as local counsel in the lawsuit,filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.
  • Pronunciation guide: Barham (BEHR'-um)
Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
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