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Religion | April 30, 2012

Evangelist wins appeal against Tennessee school

Religious freedom

Court rules Tennessee Tech violated preacher's right to witness on campus

Courtesy photo

When John McGlone started handing out flyers and witnessing to students at Tennessee Technological University in April 2009, a campus police officer threatened to arrest him.

McGlone hadn't given the required two-week notice of his intention to speak on the Cookeville, Tenn., campus, and school administrators told him he could stay only if he agreed to talk to students in one, isolated area. The next day, McGlone returned to preach on a sidewalk on the edge of campus, believing he was on city property. School officials ran him off again, with a warning that his preaching violated school policy and could get him arrested.

McGlone filed suit in federal court, claiming school officials violated his First Amendment rights. The district court sided with the school, refusing to grant McGlone a temporary injunction to continue to preach and claiming he didn't have standing to bring the suit.

But last week, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with McGlone, overturning the lower court ruling and sending the case back for trial.

"TTU's campus policy violates the First Amendment because the policy is not narrowly tailored to any legitimate interest," the judges wrote.

In its ruling, the three-judge panel affirmed the legal protection for McGlone's preaching and declared the school's policy imposed a prior restraint on his right to free speech. The judges faulted the policy for allowing school administrators to pre-approve McGlone's message and criticized school officials for not giving any legitimate reason for the 14-day notice requirement.

The school's lawyers "failed to meet their burden in defending the policy," the judges wrote, describing the notice period as "unreasonable."

Quoting at times from McGlone's appeal, the judges sided with him on every charge.

McGlone is the second evangelist in the last two months to win a victory over restrictive speech policies. In March, the Maricopa Community College District abandoned a new policy that required preachers to give a 14-day notice before coming to campus and pay $50 per day for the privilege. Preacher Ryan Arneson sued, but the school backed down before the case could go to trial.

In a similar case in Southern California last year, the Life Legal Defense Foundation reached a mediated settlement with Cypress College in a case involving pro-life group Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust. The community college agreed to revise its restrictive speech policy and pay the group's legal bills.

Related stories:

Community college district drops free speech restrictions (April 10, 2012)
Street preacher fights campus speech restrictions (Jan. 23, 2012)
College revises protest policy (Sept. 15, 2011)