College Can Enforce Speech Policy, Court Says

      (CN) – Southeastern Louisiana University can enforce its speech policy while a lawsuit filed by a student who was asked to leave campus for expressing a “religious message” moves through the courts, the 5th Circuit ruled.

     SLU student Jeremy Sonnier sued the school, claiming that the speech policy violates the First Amendment.
     The dispute arose when Sonnier and four other non-students assembled on SLU’s campus to “express a religious message” to students and passersby. The group was asked to leave campus because they lacked a permit for public assembly or demonstration.
     SLU’s speech policy states, “[F]reedom of speech and assembly are basic and essential to both intellectual and social development… These freedoms, however, are not absolute.”
     The university requires permits for all assemblies on campus, which must be applied for seven days prior to the event. The approval process is content-neutral.
     Sonnier sought to bar SLU from enforcing the speech policy until a verdict had been reached. The district court denied the motion, finding that Sonnier’s likely failure to prove a constitutional violation makes a preliminary injunction inappropriate.
     The 7th Circuit affirmed most of the district court’s decision, barring only a rule which allows SLU to bill the speaker for security measures.
     Sonnier agreed that SLU can implement a policy that “promotes education and minimizes disruptions to the academic setting,” but believes that the current speech policy is not narrowly tailored to meet that goal.
     He alleged that requiring a permit and requesting personal information about the speaker was too broad. Sonnier also attacked the regulation that a student may only host an event for two hours each week.
     The district and 5th Circuit courts upheld the rules, finding that they ensure speech diversity and minimize disruption on campus.
     “We find no authority – and Sonnier provides none – that requires a public university to throw open its entire campus for public assemblies or demonstrations,” Judge Eugene Davis wrote for the 5th Circuit.
     However, the circuit decided that a regulation which bills security-related expenses to an event sponsor violates the First Amendment. Because the amount of the fee and which events are charged is at the sole discretion of a school administrator, the court barred the rule.
     Judge James Dennis dissented, finding that all of the provisions challenged by Sonnier are unconstitutional. He said that deciding the case based on the policy’s wording alone is a misstep.
      “Thus, the challenged restrictions – which require even small groups and individuals to seek the government’s permission seven days in advance of speaking in public, to entrust significant personal information to SLU and to speak for no more than two hours per seven days – are unconstitutional, at least as applied to the plaintiff’s speech in this case,” he wrote.

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