Christian group says NCSU policy violates free-speech rights
Posted June 2, 2016
Raleigh, N.C. — A federal judge grilled state attorneys Thursday about the legality of a North Carolina State University policy requiring student groups to obtain a permit to distribute fliers and approach other students in public spaces on campus.
"These are adults, adults on a campus, a state-run campus, and before they can talk with anyone or solicit them in some way like, 'Come join our club,' they have to get a permit?" U.S. District Judge James Dever asked.
Grace Christian Life, a non-denominational church that meets on campus, has sued N.C. State, saying the permit policy violates the group's free-speech rights.
University officials said the policy dates to 1993, and attorneys for the state told Dever that it helps ensure student safety and manage areas such as Talley Student Union as more than 600 student groups jockey for space. The attorneys compared permits to reservations at a restaurant and said it helps university administrators recognize potential safety issues.
Dever asked for an example of a safety issue, but the lawyers couldn't provide one.
The lawyers also weren't able to answer when the judge questioned how the policy is enforced.
Edmund LaCour, the attorney for Grace Christian Life, said N.C. State is trying to "micromanage conversations" between student groups and potential members.
"You have a policy that tries to regulate one-on-one conversations," LaCour said. "It’s clear you can’t have the 'non-permitted-speech police' everywhere on campus, and so, when you have something like that, it will be applied in a discriminatory manner."
He also alleged that N.C. State has singled out Grace Christian Life, arguing that university staff hasn't pushed non-religious student groups to obtain permits.
In a statement, N.C. State denied that the policy discriminates.
"The implication that an organization has been treated differently on our campus because it is a religious group is false," the statement said. "Individuals are, of course, free to engage others in conversations about their faith on campus. That free speech right is protected by the U.S. Constitution, and N.C. State not only protects but also defends the right of free speech for this group and all groups committed to the open exchange of ideas, regardless of viewpoint."
The university said Grace Christian Life has obtained permits for space in Talley Student Union more than 190 times during the 2015-16 academic year and already has reserved space 63 times for 2016-17.
Some N.C. State students said they weren't familiar with the lawsuit, but they questioned the permit policy.
"This is a public university, you know. People have the right to express their opinions, and handing out pamphlets absolutely falls under free speech, freedom of the press," student Conner Anderson said.
Dever said he would decide over this weekend whether N.C. State can continue requiring permits while the lawsuit is pending.