NC State’s student speech policy changed, lawsuit dismissed

A student Christian organization at N.C. State University says it has dropped its lawsuit against four campus administrators because the university has changed its policies on student speech on campus.

Grace Christian Life argued that requiring students to get a permit to pass out pamphlets and fliers on campus violated free speech rights and that administrators enforced the rule unfairly.

The organization filed suit in April against NCSU Chancellor Randy Woodson; Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Warwick Arden; T.J. Willis, associate director of University Student Centers; and Associate Provost Mike Giancola. It was represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian organization based in Arizona that has been involved in numerous legal fights over religion, abortion and other issues across the nation.

In early June, U.S. District Judge James C. Dever III issued an order that blocked NCSU administrators from enforcing the policy on campus that required any student or off-campus guest to obtain a permit to distribute fliers or solicit people in public places.

Alliance Defending Freedom, in announcing that the lawsuit had been settled, said the solicitation permitting process had been changed recently and no longer requires a permit for non-commercial speech. The settlement also specifies that N.C. State must pay $72,500 in attorneys’ fees to lawyers who represented Grace Christian Life.

“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,” Tyson Langhofer, ADF senior counsel, said in a statement. “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.”

The NCSU non-commercial solicitation policy had been in place since 1993.

In its challenge of the policy, Grace Christian Life argued that its members were treated differently from other students because they were part of a religious organization. They contended that they were told more often than others that they must remain at their assigned table in the Talley Student Union building while representatives of other organizations were seen wandering around handing out literature and collecting signatures on petitions.

Attorneys representing N.C. State disputed those claims, saying 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 also likened the permitting process to making reservations at a restaurant.

Before Dever issued his order to block enforcement of parts of the solicitation policy, he suggested that NCSU officials might change the policy and make the lawsuit unnecessary.

“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 attorneys for NCSU at a hearing in June.

Fred Hartman, a spokesman for NCSU, said the university had “revised and clarified its solicitation policy to better align with our intent and application of the procedure. Students, student groups and their sponsored guests will no longer be required to reserve space in order to conduct non-commercial solicitation.”

The university fosters and enables the healthy and free exchange of ideas and viewpoints by students and the community, he added.

“N.C. State chose to settle this matter outside of the courtroom,” Hartman said. “Continuing to defend this lawsuit – a suit essentially regarding an administrative process – could have potentially driven up legal costs significantly and taken away resources better served in other areas.”

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1