Politics

Why the DOJ is Interested in Ga Gwinnett College

Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks about free speech at the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017.
Credit Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press
Audio version of this story here.

Last year, a student at Georgia Gwinnett College tried to share his evangelical Christian beliefs on campus.

“Publicly speaking about his faith, explaining how scripture teaches that all have sinned, and that Christ died and rose again to provide salvation – and in the midst of presenting that message when campus security came up and stopped him,” said attorney Travis Barham, who is helping Chike Uzuegbunam sue the college for violating the student’s free speech and religious rights.

The U.S. Department of Justice weighed in on support of Uzuegbunam’s suit in a “statement of interest” Tuesday. The brief came as U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke to students in Washington, D.C., about campus free speech.

As public spaces, which often receive either federal funding or tax breaks, college campuses are generally held to a high obligation to allow speech of all kinds. Barham said the college’s policy of designating a small, free speech zone has been successfully challenged in similar cases.

“For example, just here in the state of Georgia, we have sued the University of Georgia over its speech zone, we’ve sued Georgia Tech over its speech zone and speech code,” he said. “And all of those policies were changed as a result of litigation.”

The “we” Barham refers to is the Alliance Defending Freedom, which he said is “a nonprofit legal organization that exists to defend religious freedom, the sanctity of life and traditional family values.”

The ADF represented former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran who was fired in 2015 after distributing a self-published book at work in which he referred to homosexuality as “vile” amd  “vulgar.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center designated the ADF a hate group last year.

“Our main reasons for doing so is because the organization engages in the spread of anti-LGBT propaganda and it is also one of the organizations that have been most outspoken in favor of criminalization of gay sex in other countries,” said Heidi Beirich, who directs the SPLC’s Intelligence Project.

“Broadly, I believe we should support all free speech rights, including to a student who wants to evangelize – that is absolutely their right,” said Beirich. “But this administration has some hypocritical aspects to it when it comes to free speech issues.”

She pointed to the Justice Department’s scrutiny of a woman who laughed during Sessions’ confirmation hearings as well as President Donald Trump’s criticism of NFL players demonstrating during the national anthem.

“I think it tells you something that the first free speech case on a campus that Sessions decides to step up on involves evangelical proselytizing. There’s probably a range of things the department of justice could be supporting as a free speech issue,” said Beirich.

Beirich also noted that Sessions’ gave a speech to the Alliance Defending Freedom this summer.

Barham said the school has asked that the case be dismissed and they’re waiting for the court’s decision on that.

In a statement, Georgia Gwinnett College said it couldn’t comment on pending litigation, but says first amendment rights are of the utmost importance.