Court Upholds University of Alabama’s Permitting Scheme for On-Campus Speech

Rodney Keister is a traveling Christian evangelical.  He proselytizes by preaching and passing out literature on public sidewalks.  He also speaks and prays with people passing by.  (He appears to have an organization named Evangelism Mission.)

Rodney Keister

Two years ago, he was proselytizing on the sidewalk near an intersection on the campus of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.  He and a friend were preaching using a bullhorn, displaying large banners, and passing out literature.  University police told them that they had to leave because they had not obtained a university permit—which are issued only to university-affiliated organizations, which Keister and his friend were not.  Fearing arrest, they left.

Keister later sued, arguing that the university’s permitting scheme was unconstitutional.  At issue was whether the intersection Keister was on was a “traditional public forum,” where the government generally cannot limit who speaks; or whether it was a “limited public forum,” where the government can restrict its property’s use to certain classes of people (like university students).  Keister argued that the intersection is a “traditional public forum,” just like any other city sidewalk.  He pointed out that the University sidewalks look like any other sidewalks, and that one can walk unimpeded from the Tuscaloosa city sidewalks onto the university campus.  But the Court rejected his arguments, found the intersection to be a “limited public forum,” and upheld the policy.  The Court pointed out that the intersection was on campus property, that it was the “heart” of the university’s campus, and that numerous university buildings and signs surrounded the intersection.  The Court ruled that the intersection was “not intended as an area for the public’s expressive conduct” and that the permitting scheme was permissible because the “essential function” of the university’s property “is congruent with its educational mission.”

Case: Keister v. Bell, 17-11347 (11th Cir. Jan. 23, 2018) (opinion here)

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