Va. Community College System Faces Free Speech Suit

HAMPTON, Va. ― The Virginia Community College System is being sued by a student who alleges that its campus demonstrations policy is unconstitutional.

Christian Parks, a student at Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton, is seeking an injunction to invalidate the policy.

Parks’ federal lawsuit says that he is an evangelical Christian who had preached twice in a central courtyard on the school’s campus last fall without incident. When he preached a third time, three campus police officers ordered him to stop preaching. A week later, he was again ordered to stop when he attempted to preach a fourth time.

Parks was told that he had violated the college system’s policy governing campus demonstrations at all 23 of the state’s community colleges, according to the lawsuit.

The policy limits demonstrations to those sponsored by organizations recognized by a college. Demonstrations must be held in designated areas of a college’s property, with boundaries set by agreement between organizations and college officials.

The lawsuit argues that the policy infringes on Parks’ free speech and religious expression, and gives officials “unbridled discretion over whether, when, and where” students may engage in public speech on campus.

The Virginian-Pilot reported that the lawsuit was filed last week in U.S. District Court.

A spokesman for the college system, Jeffrey Krause, told the newspaper that he can’t comment on pending litigation. Parks declined a request for an interview, the newspaper said.

Parks is represented by Chesapeake attorney Steven Taylor and the Alliance Defending Freedom, a national Christian legal ministry.

David Hacker, a California-based attorney with the alliance, said many colleges and universities have policies restricting student speech to “speech zones.” These zones frequently are located in small, isolated areas of the campus, and require advance permission to congregate there.

Courts have struck down several such policies, he said.

“It really disables spontaneous and anonymous speech by students and limits the ability of students to reach out to their peers in other areas of campus where students commonly gather,” Hacker said.