On Monday, the United States Supreme Court handed down a narrow decision in favor of a Christian preacher challenging a Georgia university’s campus policies.
The case, which started in 2016, involved a Christian evangelist named Joseph B. Latson who was repeatedly denied permission to preach and distribute literature on the campus of Georgia Gwinnett College, a public institution near Atlanta. Latson, who is not affiliated with the school, argued that the university’s policies were unconstitutional and violated his First Amendment rights.
After a lower court initially dismissed Latson’s claims, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in 2020. In a 8-1 decision, the Court ruled that the case should be sent back to the lower court for further review, siding with Latson’s argument that the school’s policies were in fact too restrictive of his speech.
At the heart of the case was the question of whether or not the university’s policies created a “free speech zone” that was too limited in scope. The university had designated two small areas on campus where outside speakers could express their views, but Latson and his supporters argued that the policies effectively silenced their voices by making it difficult or impossible to reach a wide audience.
The Supreme Court’s decision did not strike down the university’s policies outright, but it did suggest that the lower court should examine whether or not they could be more inclusive and accommodating.
The ruling was hailed as a victory for free speech advocates, particularly those who have criticized college campuses for being too restrictive of views that are deemed offensive or controversial. Some conservative commentators also saw the decision as a rebuke of cancel culture and political correctness, arguing that it sent a message that universities should not be allowed to censor speech based on subjective judgments of what is offensive or harmful.
However, others saw the decision as a narrow one that did little to clarify the broader issues around free speech on college campuses. Some legal scholars argued that it appeared to reaffirm previous Supreme Court rulings that allowed universities to impose reasonable restrictions on time, place, and manner of outside speech in order to maintain order and safety on campus.
Meanwhile, some civil rights advocates criticized the decision for potentially allowing outside speakers to promote messages of hate, bigotry, and discrimination without any meaningful challenge or response. They argued that universities had a responsibility to foster an inclusive and respectful learning environment, and that some messages were simply incompatible with those goals.
Overall, the Supreme Court’s decision in this case is unlikely to settle the ongoing debate over free speech on college campuses, which has become a hot-button issue in recent years. As universities continue to grapple with how to balance the competing interests of free expression and civil discourse, it seems likely that more legal challenges will arise in the future.