RALEIGH, N.C. ― A federal judge on Thursday quizzed attorneys for North Carolina’s largest public university why constitutional free-speech protections allow the school to require students who want to engage others in extended debate or proselytizing to secure a permit.
Lawyers for North Carolina State University argued in court that the rules are in place to improve campus safety and limit disruptions to education from speakers expressing their views.
A student group affiliated with Raleigh’s Grace Community Church challenged the university policy that distributing literature on campus or engaging passersby requires a permit.
The university “is trying to regulate activities it has no legitimate interest in regulating,” said Edmund LaCour Jr., an attorney brought in by the Arizona-based Christian legal nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing the student group. “There’s no excuse for trying to micromanage the discussions of students.”
U.S. District Judge James Dever III said he could decide this weekend whether to block the NCSU policy. The judge has to decide that the student group Grace Christian Life will suffer irreparable harm if the policy isn’t blocked until a trial decides whether it violates constitutional free-speech rights.
Dever repeatedly questioned the university’s attorney why the more than 30,000 adult students crisscrossing NCSU’s 2,000 acres needed a permit to engage in debates about politics, faith or economics.
“Before that person can have that conversation they have to get a permit?” Dever asked. “You say that’s consistent with the First Amendment?”
The permit, required since 1993, is more about preventing entrances in and out of the student center and other well-traveled routes from becoming clogged by groups of people lost in discussion, said the university’s attorney, Stephanie Brennan.
“It’s not the same as a casual conversation,” Brennan said.
The permits allow the more than 600 registered student groups at NCSU to get a fair shot at reaching people from one of the limited prime spots, she said. The school is entitled to set reasonable limitations on the time, place and manner of campus activities to ensure its educational mission, Brennan said.
The school routinely issues the permits without regard to a student group’s content or viewpoint, she said. Grace Christian Life has gotten hundreds of speech permits for the past year and the upcoming academic year, she said.