Supreme Court Declines Pastor’s Free Speech Case Against University

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The U.S. Supreme Court Monday declined to hear a Christian pastor’s case against University of Alabama (UA) officials that refused to allow him to hand out evangelism pamphlets on a public sidewalk without a permit, according to court documents.

Rodney Keister, pastor and founder of Evangelism Mission, filed a petition to the Supreme Court in 2022 to intervene after his free speech lawsuit had been rejected by several lowers courts, according to the petition. The court issued a decision Monday declining Keister’s petition for a writ of certiorari but did not give a reason. (RELATED: Nearly A Third Of Americans Rank Evangelicals As The Most Unfavorable Religion: POLL)

Nate Kellum, chief counsel with Center for Religious Expression, a religious legal firm representing Keister, told the Daily Caller News Foundation that he was “surprised as well as disappointed” by the Supreme Court’s decision and said he couldn’t “fathom the reasoning” since their appeal had “considerable merit.”

“The Eleventh Circuit, contrary to other circuits, ruled a city sidewalk is not a public forum for speech,” Kellum said. “Before this decision, it was generally understood in free speech jurisprudence that citizens enjoy the freedom to talk where they have the freedom to walk, but this now seems to be an open question, invariably leading to the muzzling of free speech in public spaces, at least in those states that fall within the Eleventh Circuit.”

Statue outside of Bryant-Denny Stadium on the campus of the University of Alabama before a game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Texas A&M Aggies at Bryant-Denny Stadium on September 22, 2018 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

TUSCALOOSA, AL – SEPTEMBER 22: Statue outside of Bryant-Denny Stadium on the campus of the University of Alabama before a game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Texas A&M Aggies at Bryant-Denny Stadium on September 22, 2018, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

In March 2016, Keister handed out pamphlets and preached using an amplifier on a city sidewalk across from the university, according to the petition. Keister was initially approved to use the sidewalk by university officials but was later informed that the university needed him to get a permit allowing him to use the grounds for his event.

The city granted UA the right to police and manage these sidewalks, which the university argues gives it the right to require a grounds permit for any use of the area for public speaking and events, according to UA’s brief in opposition. Keister sued the university in 2017 after his free speech argument was rejected by UA, but did not find initial success in court, according to the petition.

“Petitioner sought relief, including preliminary relief, from this restriction, but he obtained none from the district court, which denied his request for a preliminary injunction,” Keister’s appeal to the Supreme Court read. “Based on the limited record before it, the district court held the sidewalks are not traditional public fora because they sit in the ‘heart’ of the university campus. Petitioner appealed this decision, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed, and this Court declined the petition to review the preliminary ruling.”

Kellum told the DCNF that he believed it was only a matter of time before the court was forced to hear the case.

“Regrettably, the Supreme Court’s silence will not help matters,” Kellum said. “I suspect the Supreme Court is delaying the inevitable and will assess this troubling trend at some point.”

UA did not immediately respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.

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