Last month, a federal court ordered North Carolina State University (NC State) to stop enforcing a policy that required student groups to get written permission from administrators before distributing literature or merely speaking to students on campus. While NC State repeatedly defended the policy—a policy squarely at odds with the First Amendment—the university has now agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by a student organization. As part of that settlement, NC State revised the policy and agreed to pay for the student group’s legal fees.
NC State’s original “Non-Commercial Solicitation” policy prohibited “any distribution of leaflets, brochures or other written material, or oral speech to a passersby [sic]” without written permission in advance from administrators. NC State student group Grace Christian Life, represented by attorneys from Alliance Defending Freedom, called upon NC State to rescind the policy. When NC State repeatedly refused, Grace Christian Life sued, and a federal judge entered a preliminary injunction requiring the university to stop enforcing the policy pending trial. As FIRE predicted, NC State has now settled the lawsuit by finally agreeing to reform the policy and agreeing to pay $72,500 of Grace Christian Life’s attorneys’ fees.
The rewritten policy eliminates the requirement to obtain prior authorization, permitting students to demonstrate, speak, and pass out literature without a permission slip. That’s a welcome change. Exercising First Amendment rights does not require a permission slip from university administrators. NC State should have recognized that from the outset.
NC State could have written a coherent policy that didn’t violate the First Amendment. NC State could have revised its policy when Grace Christian Life’s attorneys from Alliance Defending Freedom first asked the institution to fix the policy. NC State could have revised its policy when it was sued, before attempting to defend the policy before a federal judge.
NC State chose to do none of those things. Now it will cost the citizens and students whose taxes and tuition pay the NC State administrators who should’ve made those decisions. How much, exactly, is unknown. While NC State will pay $72,500 toward the student group’s legal fees, that amount doesn’t include the expenses incurred in employing government attorneys to defend the indefensible policy.
The Wilson Times aptly argues that NC State’s acquiescence is a victory for all students, no matter their views:
The First Amendment protects freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion. Those are broad categories that encompass a lot of expression, and government bodies like our public universities can’t slap arbitrary labels like “non-commercial solicitation” on speech in order to restrict it.
Call it witnessing, evangelism, conversation, conversion, soul-saving or “solicitation” — it’s still free speech. Period.
A permit policy with such nebulous language could just as easily be used to shut down petition drives, political discussions and nearly any encounter between students where persuasion or invitation is involved. Since so many mundane exchanges could conceivably qualify as “solicitation,” we have no trouble believing the rule was enforced on a selective basis to suit individual administrators’ tastes.
Adult students on the campuses of our public colleges and universities enjoy the full exercise of their constitutional rights. School officials cannot lawfully limit them.
We believe N.C. State deserves some credit for recognizing the error of its ways and settling the case to avoid fighting a losing battle against the First Amendment. That praise, however, is tempered by the fact that NCSU has humiliated itself in its short-lived defense of the school rule and, as a condition of the settlement, will pay the plaintiffs’ $72,500 legal fees out of our collective pockets.
This is exactly right. Universities that enshrine policies impeding the First Amendment rights of their students will pay a price. When they institute speech-restrictive policies, the students bear the cost, paying tuition to attend a school where campus discourse is chilled. When schools like NC State resist calls to reform these policies, the taxpayers foot the bill, paying attorneys’ fees to defend the indefensible.
If you’re a student at any of the colleges and universities with speech-restrictive policies—or a taxpayer funding one of these institutions—ask your school or elected officials to reform their policies. Let them know that FIRE is always willing to work with institutions on their policies in order to address First Amendment concerns.