LOUISVILLE, Ky. — An evangelist who preaches at campuses nationwide has lost his initial bid to speak at Murray State University in western Kentucky.
A federal judge ruled July 2 that the school's campus-speech policy requiring speakers to obtain on-campus sponsors is legal.
James G. "Brother Jim" Gilles, an Evansville, Ind., native now based in Symsonia in western Kentucky, sued the university in 2006, claiming that Murray State deprived him of his rights to free speech and to exercise his religion by rejecting his requests to preach at the Curris Center — a high-traffic area frequented by students and visitors.
Gilles asked for an injunction suspending the school's sponsor requirement.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Russell said in his ruling that the requirement was not a burden for Gilles.
"If Plaintiff obtains sponsorship by a student organization or a university department, he is free to speak on campus," Russell wrote.
Gilles contends that he was not required to have a sponsor before 2004 and that Murray State officials were arbitrarily enforcing the student handbook's solicitation policy.
Since 1981, when Gilles says he found God while attending a Van Halen concert, the Pentecostal preacher has traveled across the nation to speak at dozens of universities and state capitals. He's fought speaking restrictions at other colleges, including the University of Missouri, Virginia Tech, and Vincennes University in Indiana with some success.
The Alliance Defense Fund, a national legal organization founded in part by Christian group Focus on the Family, was representing Gilles in the lawsuit.
Nate Kellum, a senior legal counsel for the group, said continuing to pursue a final judgment from Russell was "not a bad option" for Gilles because the case is winnable. Murray State's regulations "completely bar" Gilles from exercising his First Amendment rights, Kellum said.
"Essentially, they set themselves up as speech dictators, retaining for themselves the power to pick and choose whatever speech they wish to hear, premised on nothing more than their individual preferences and biases," Kellum said.
A message left for Bob Jackson, associate vice president for development and governmental relations at Murray State, was not returned.
Gilles began speaking at Murray State in the 1980s and at various times has made disparaging remarks about students and professors, including referring to sorority members as prostitutes. In October 2004, the university told Gilles he needed sponsorship from a university organization or department because his talks were considered solicitation.
Russell wrote that under existing law Murray State isn't required to treat the open areas of its campus as a public forum. (Under the public-forum doctrine, government officials have less authority to restrict speech in places that by tradition have been open for free expression. Such an area is called a public forum.)
Russell also wrote that because the school's policy requires all speakers to get a sponsor regardless of what they wish to speak about, Gilles can't make the case that his rights were violated.