The Supreme Court yesterday administered a well-aimed slap in the face to a liberal arts college in Georgia that employed grotesquely authoritarian methods in order to silence Christian students attempting to witness to their faith.
Georgia Gwinnett College prides itself on being the most ‘diverse’ college in the South. But when, in 2016, a student called Chike Uzuegbunam tried to evangelize and hand out pamphlets, the campus police decided to give him a taste of what life was like for Christians behind the Iron Curtain. Wrong sort of diversity, you see.
Now, I’m the first to agree that Evangelical Christians — or any other religious radicals — can make a bloody nuisance of themselves on campus. When I was in my second year at university, the intake of freshmen contained a strangely high proportion of born-again Christians. They did weird things, such as solemnly burning tarot cards outside the chapel in the dead of night. One or two of them embarked on a crusade to bore their fellow students to death in the college bar. This called for a campaign of relentless mockery. I, for one, did not shrink from the challenge.
If the college had intervened to protect ordinary students from the Evangelical ‘witnessing’ and the drunken cackling of their critics, then that would have been fair enough. It could have said: you born-again Christians can harvest souls in the chapel for an hour every Friday night, and put up posters advertising your meeting, but that’s it. And, Damian, if you don’t stop this rudeness we’ll haul you in front of the Dean.
But, this being England in the 1980s rather than America in the 2010s, it wasn’t necessary because everyone got bored.
Now consider what happened to Uzuegbunam. When he was spotted talking about Jesus and handing out literature, a SWAT team of diversity police jumped on him. He was told by Gwinnett’s ‘director of the Office of Student Integrity’ that he could only do that stuff in one of the college’s ‘free speech expression zones’ — ‘zone’ being a rather extravagant term for two patches of campus about the size of the grassy knoll. And, of course, he’d need a permit.
Uzuegbunam went along with this. He got his permit, making sure that the college saw all the literature he planning to hand out, and parked himself in the zone. Soon after he opened his mouth, he was stopped by two campus police officers who explained that ‘free speech’ didn’t include anything that disturbed the peace. Which was sneaky because a Supreme Court ruling of 1946 clarified that the First Amendment doesn’t cover ‘fighting words’ that might incite violence.
The hole in this argument isn’t difficult to spot. Uzuegbunam didn’t pose any sort of threat to public order unless you count a hissy fit by snowflakes as a breach of the peace. He is an exceptionally polite and law-abiding young man; he stopped evangelizing on campus and graduated from Gwinnett.
Perhaps the college thought he was a pushover. Big mistake. Uzuegbunam and another student who wanted to evangelize on campus sued Gwinnett. The college used the ‘fighting words’ ruling as a fig-leaf. Then, noting that their former student was being represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, a fearsomely successful law firm that defends Christian beliefs, it hastily dumped its policy of free speech expression zones.
Too late. Having failed to achieve any sort of vindication in the lower courts, Uzuegbunam’s lawyers took the case all the way to the Supreme Court. You might wonder how they could, given that Gwinnett had lifted its Iron Curtain.
To cut a long story short, the Supreme Court was ruling this week on whether a case such as Uzuegbunam’s had been rendered moot, or dead in the water, by a reversal of policy, or whether plaintiffs in his situation could carry on seeking nominal damages in court.
The court decided that they could — and, in writing the opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas noted that it was ‘undisputed’ that Uzuegbunam had suffered a ‘violation of his constitutional rights when respondents enforced their speech policies against him’.
You can imagine the initial reaction of the thought-police lobby: ‘Well, it’s Clarence Thomas speaking on behalf of Trump’s hard-right Supreme Court. What do you expect?’ Followed by the sound of them choking on their vegan shakes as they read the list of co-signatories.
Sotomayer. Kagan. Breyer. WTF? In fact, there was only one dissenting voice, that of Chief Justice John Roberts, a George W. Bush appointee, one of those establishment conservatives who love to roll over and have their tummies tickled by liberals.
So, not a good week for Georgia Gwinnett College. Having entered the history books as the ‘Most diverse college (public or private) in the Southern region’ (US News & World Report), it has now been found to have committed a ‘violation of the constitutional rights’ of a young man of African heritage (US Supreme Court).
I had a root round its website. There’s no sign of a Lubyanka-style Office of Student Integrity from which you can hear the screams of students caught with a copy of National Review in their dorm. If you want to find that sort of political correctness, try the Ivy League. Gwinnett is diverse, that’s for sure, but mainly in the sense that it’s trying to educate people from all sorts of disadvantaged backgrounds. The liberal arts syllabus isn’t twisted by post-modernism. I ended up deciding that the Office of Student Integrity is so-called because integrity mattered to the authorities…until 2016.
Here’s a theory. Places like Gwinnett have been poisoned by an ideology of identity politics that wasn’t developed by or for them. At Harvard and Yale, the etiquette of indoctrination and no-platforming is so well established that it scarcely needs to be taught. Elsewhere, however, more modest colleges are close to panic as they try to cope with the demands of gender theory and other jargon-ridden creeds.
The authorities at Georgia Gwinnett College were fairly new to all this. They appear to have thrown up their hands and told their police to enforce the new consensus. But they didn’t really understand how to suppress free speech, and in their clumsy attempt to do so they managed to unite Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor. That takes some doing, and it will also take some doing for the college to repair its reputation.
But I can think of an obvious first step. The college’s president, the biologist Dr Jann L. Joseph, the Trinidad-born daughter of parents who didn’t even complete elementary school, needs to meet Chike Uzuegbunam and tell him: we’re sorry we deprived you of your First Amendment rights. We’ve dumped our creepy policy. Now we’re going to dump this creepy ideology.