NEW ORLEANS A federal judge made an initial ruling yesterday in favor of a Louisiana university being sued by a Christian evangelist who claims he was threatened with arrest if he didn’t stop speaking on campus.
U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle refused to grant a preliminary injunction requested by the Alliance Defend Fund, a Christian civil rights group that claims Southeastern Louisiana University stifled traveling evangelist Jeremy Sonnier’s constitutional right to speak on campus. The group wanted to temporarily block the school from enforcing its speech policy while the lawsuit is argued.
The state-funded school says it has a right to limit the time, place and manner of free speech on its Hammond campus, about 60 miles northwest of New Orleans.
Sonnier, 33, of Lafayette, claims a university police officer told him and three friends in 2007 that they could be arrested if they didn’t stop voicing their religious views on school property. The lawsuit says Sonnier frequently travels to public universities, speaking on sidewalks and passing out religious pamphlets.
Defendants named in the suit are: John Crain, SLU’s president; Jim McHodgkins, the school’s assistant vice president for student affairs; and Thomas Carmichael, a university police officer.
On Nov. 19, 2007, Sonnier was holding a sign and trying to speak with students near a campus plaza when the officer told him he would need McHodgkins’ permission to speak there. Sonnier and the officer got into a dispute over whether he was disruptive.
According to the lawsuit, the officer said: “You are, because there are people here who are not agreeing with you.”
The university requires visitors to get permission to speak on campus a week in advance, and limits them to two hours a week. The school also restricts their displays to three campus sites.
An attorney for the school, Linda Law Clark, said the school has not rejected any of the more than 100 religious groups that has asked to speak on campus since 2004. Sonnier didn’t formally apply.
Sonnier’s lawyers said the school’s time restrictions were “severe and unusual.”
“They don’t need seven days to adequately prepare for that,” said Jonathan Scruggs, an Alliance Defense Fund lawyer suing the school on Sonnier’s behalf.
The judge cited a 2006 federal appeals court ruling in a separate but similar case when he denied the preliminary injunction. That case involved the University of Arkansas, which limited public speakers to five visits per semester and required them to apply three days in advance. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that, except for the five-day cap, the university’s limits on public speeches were constitutional.
The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Alliance Defense Fund has had other lawsuits in Louisiana over religious expression. It sued the city of Zachary, a Baton Rouge suburb where a street preacher was threatened with arrest when he spread his message outside a bar, and defended a decision to hang a portrait of Jesus alone in a courthouse foyer in Slidell.
A trial in Sonnier’s case was scheduled for February 2010.