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Christian club wins free speech fight at N.C. State

NORTH CAROLINA (BP) — In 2015, North Carolina State University reintroduced the renovated Talley Student Union as a place to share ideas and advocate for campus clubs. But administrators welcomed some beliefs more than others, according to campus ministry Grace Christian Life. The group sued, and finally convinced the school to alter its free speech policy.
In September 2015, Todd Valentine, an N.C. State senior, and Thommy Saunders, a Grace staff member, visited the student union without a permit — as Grace members have for 20 years. They initiated conversations with students about faith and invited them to Grace events. But the student center’s associate director, TJ Willis, ordered the club to register for a permit each time members planned to “solicit” their beliefs.
Valentine and Saunders halted their work for the day, but administrators continued to debate their case for months.
According to court documents, Willis warned Associate Vice Provost Mike Giancola via email about Saunders “soliciting” around the student union.
Ann Pearce, director of the interfaith Chaplain’s Cooperative Ministry (CCM) of which Grace was a member, also reprimanded the group for speaking without a permit and invoking spontaneous religious discussions — with a permit or without.
According to Grace, the club registered for a speech permit in January and set up an information table in the student union. Clubs advertising everything from UNICEF to Latin dancing distribute literature and strike up conversations in the facility, but a Student Involvement employee ordered Grace members to stand quietly behind their display and speak only to students who approached them. School employees issued the same directive to group members on several other occasions.
In the following weeks, Grace members watched as clubs rallied passersby, marketers hawked jobs, and one student distributed political literature — sometimes in clear view of Willis.
“It’s Talley; you don’t need a permit to talk to people,” asserted one student, when a Grace member asked him if he had registered or not, according to the court documents.
In April, Grace Christian Life sued Willis, Giancola, Chancellor Randy Woodson, and another administrator. In a statement, Woodson said the lawsuit was “without merit,” superfluous on a campus where “free speech is alive and well.”
Grace Christian Life President Hannalee Alrutz told The Daily Signal the right to free speech was worth challenging the school for.
“The policy kills our speech,” she said. “It puts a lot of fear in us so that when we desire to talk to somebody on campus, like a fellow student, there is always, in the back of our mind, a worry that we may be stopped or punished because the policy allows for that.”
On June 11, a district court issued a preliminary injunction against the speech policy, ruling it encroached on Grace’s free speech rights. After that ruling, the school agreed to settle the case.
According to N.C. State spokesman Fred Hartman, the school decided to change the policy in early July to avoid future legal fees and misplaced resources.
“As part of this decision, the university has revised and clarified its solicitation policy to better align with our intent and application of the procedure,” Hartman said. “Students, student groups, and their sponsored guests will no longer be required to reserve space in order to conduct non-commercial solicitation.”
On July 19, attorneys representing Grace Christian Life withdrew their lawsuit against N.C. State.
“Students of any religious, political, or ideological persuasion should be able to freely and peacefully speak with their fellow students about their views without interference from university officials who may prefer one view over another,” said attorney Tyson Langhofer, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom. “N.C. State did the right thing in revising its policy to reflect this instead of continuing to defend its previous policy, which was not constitutionally defensible.”