Georgia's Kennesaw State University (KSU) has agreed to eliminate policies that may have violated the First Amendment rights of students, after the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed a pair of lawsuits against the college earlier this year.
The ADF, a legal organization that works to protect religious freedom, represented students from the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), a national conservative student organization, and Ratio Christi, a pro-life Christian group.
In March, YAF students filed a lawsuit against KSU because school officials imposed a unconstitutionally-suspect $320.00 security fee on YAF’s event, which featured conservative speaker Katie Pavlich, because they deemed the event “controversial,” according to the ADF.
KSU officials also used a four-tier “hierarchical caste system” to rank student organizations, giving more funding and resources to higher-ranked groups. Officials ranked groups using “subjective factors” which were “viewpoint- or content-based,” resulting in “preferential treatment” of certain groups.
ADF Senior Counsel Travis Barham called KSU’s speech policies “byzantine,” adding that “it made no sense for the university to keep those policies.”
In the other case, the ADF filed a suit in February on behalf of students of Ratio Christi. KSU forced the students, who were exhibiting a pro-life display on campus, to use a “speech zone” that was less accessible to the students’ intended audience than the space they had originally requested, arguing that the display was “controversial” and making this judgment based on “content and viewpoint.”
The Ratio Christi students could only present their display outside the zone if they agreed to remove pro-life posters from their display.
The speech zone makes up “less than 0.08 percent of the 405-acre campus,” according to the ADF’s formal complaint. Events held there are often viewed by KSU students as “less relevant and legitimate” because the school created the zone after an off-campus group engaged in “offensive and distasteful” speech.
“The goal in creating this zone was to quarantine such speech in one location so that it could be avoided,” the ADF wrote.
The ADF argued, in both cases, that KSU’s policies unconstitutionally violated students’ First Amendment freedoms of speech and association, noting that the First Amendment “prohibits the government from restricting speech” because “listeners or government officials find it controversial.”
To settle the lawsuits, KSU agreed to revise its student organization ranking system and its security fee policy, eliminate its speech zone and allow students to “speak freely in all outdoor areas of campus.”
The college will also pay $20,100 to ADF and Ratio Christi to cover legal fees.
“The marketplace of ideas that a university is supposed to be can’t function properly if officials can charge a group ‘security fees’ just because they don’t like what the group is saying, or if officials can provide funding and the best locations only to those sharing ideas that they prefer,” ADF’s Barham said. “We commend the university for making the necessary policy changes to respect the constitutionally protected freedoms of its students.”
ADF Senior Counsel and Center for Academic Freedom Director Tyson Langhofer also weighed in, arguing that it is “vital” for the university to demonstrate the importance of First Amendment rights.
“Not only is it important that YAF and all students at KSU be able to exercise their constitutionally protected freedoms, but it’s also vital for the university to live by example in demonstrating the importance of those freedoms instead of communicating to an entire generation that the Constitution doesn’t matter,” Langhofer said.