A Christian student has won a free speech lawsuit against his community college in Virginia after campus police forced him to stop open-air preaching in the school's courtyard last fall.
This week, a federal judge sided with Christian Parks, a student at the Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton who sued the Virginia Community College System earlier this year after he was twice silenced by campus police for open-air preaching in the campus's courtyard area last fall.
In the lawsuit filed in March, Parks argued that the campus police required him to stop his speech because it "might offend someone." The student alleged that his constitutional rights to religious freedom and free speech were violated when campus police suppressed his open-air preaching on two occasions.
"It is repugnant to Mr. Parks that he, as an individual citizen and student at a public community college, must notify the government in order to speak on campus when he feels convicted by his religious faith to speak and preach on campus," the suit argued, in part.
The defense team for the Virginia Community College System cited its policy on student demonstrations that had been used on all 23 of its campuses since 1968. The policy designated certain "free speech zones" where students could congregate, and students could only speak on these parts of the campuses if they were a member of a student group. Additionally, students needed to receive permission to hold a demonstration from the president's office at least four days before the gathering.
The controversial free speech policy was suspended in April, and this week a federal judge sided with Parks, awarding $25,000 to the plaintiff and his lawyers, the Alliance Defending Freedom Christian legal group.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring decided not to defend the community college's free speech policy in court, with Michael Kelly, a spokesperson for Herring's office, saying the attorney general thought it was best to reach a resolution without extensive court proceedings.
"Once the suit was filed, our office got all parties together to help facilitate a solution prior to extensive litigation," Kelly said in a statement, according to Hampton Roads.
The community college system has now done away with its policy on student free speech, and Alliance Defending Freedom has said Parks' victory means more freedom for students and their free speech rights.
"As a result of the case, the Virginia Community College System and Thomas Nelson Community College have changed their policies to allow much greater freedom of expression for students," said Travis Barham, an attorney with the group.