Wake County

Federal judge puts halt to NC State policy after free-speech challenge

Grace Christian Life, a student organization suing four administrators at N.C. State University, persuaded a federal judge to temporarily block a policy on campus that requires any student or off-campus guest to obtain a permit to distribute fliers or solicit others.

The order does not apply to campus housing areas or commercial groups on campus.

U.S. District Judge James C. Dever III entered the ruling on Saturday, two days after holding a hearing in a Raleigh courtroom.

At issue was whether the judge would agree to an injunction that would block enforcement of the NCSU noncommercial solicitation policy while the lawsuit filed by Grace Christian Life pends in court.

During the hearing, Dever had many questions about the policy, which has been in place since 1993.

Attorneys representing N.C. State said the policy had been put in place to help the university manage communal student gathering places such as the Talley Student Union and recognize any potential safety problems. They likened the permit process to making reservations at a restaurant.

Edmund LaCour, a Washington-based attorney representing the students, argued that the policy violated the students’ rights to free speech.

The students who filed the lawsuit also have contended that they are reined in more than other student groups for talking with people beyond their assigned table in the student union.

“These are adults, adults on a campus, a state-run campus, and before they can talk with anyone or solicit them in some way like, ‘Come join our club,’ they have to get a permit?” Dever asked, adding later in the hearing that maybe the policy would be changed while the lawsuit was pending.

NCSU officials have disputed claims of Grace Christian Life that it has been treated differently from other organizations because it is a religious group.

The attorneys for NCSU argued that the permit process had been equally enforced.

The case is one the students brought with the backing of the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian organization that has been involved in many legal battles across the country that involve questions of religious freedom, abortion and other causes.

Dever added in his order that NCSU officials still could prohibit students and off-campus guests from engaging in solicitation activities that substantially disrupt university activities and functions or from obstructing others from building entrances, walkways and other campus places or nearby roads and sidewalks.

Fred Hartman, a spokesman for NC State, sent out a statement Saturday after Dever’s ruling, saying the university planned to comply with it. The statement said the policy was never intended to prohibit student conversations and “has never been applied in that manner.”

“The university remains an environment that fosters and enables the healthy and free exchange of ideas and viewpoints by our students and academic community,” the statement said. “The ruling is not in response to a concern over the university’s actual application of the policy, which is content neutral. The university has never required students to get permits to engage and talk to other students – regardless of the subject matter.”

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1