Appeals Court Orders Second Look at U. of Tennessee Visiting Speaker Policy

By August 12, 2013

Last Friday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed a ruling against John McGlone, a preacher who claimed that the University of Tennessee’s (UT’s) policies for visiting speakers are unconstitutionally vague. Torch readers might remember McGlone’s challenge to Tennessee Technical University’s 14-day notice requirement for his leafleting and public speaking, which resulted in another Sixth Circuit victory in 2012.

Inside Higher Ed’s Scott Jaschik summarized McGlone’s case against UT:

John McGlone … sued after he was not permitted to speak at the university in 2010, even though he had done so several times before. He was referred by university officials, according to the court ruling, to two policies. One said that for someone without a university affiliation to speak would require the sponsorship of a student, faculty member or administrator.  The other policy said that sponsorship needed to come from a recognized student organization.

Writing for the court, Judge Boyce F. Martin, Jr. explained that since two administrators had already given McGlone conflicting advice as to what he needed in order to speak on campus, it was evident that UT’s policies were not clear. Judge Martin wrote:

The uncertainty regarding who has the authority to grant sponsorships could cause people to refrain from attempting to exercise their First Amendment right to free speech on the University’s campus. McGlone, whose past experience included inconsistent enforcement of the sponsorship requirement and who received inconsistent interpretations of and conflicting information about the policy from University officials, has never returned to campus because he was “deterred by the process.” In addition to failing to ensure fair notice to the citizenry and to set out a clear standard for enforcement, the University’s vague sponsorship requirement threatens to chill speech.

As a note, while FIRE gives UT’s speech policies a “green light,” FIRE only rates policies that apply to students and faculty members—not outside speakers. But, as the Sixth Circuit points out, those speakers have rights too! The court remanded the case to the district court with instructions to grant a preliminary injunction, which would keep the school from enforcing this policy for now. Check back to The Torch for updates on the case’s final outcome.