Tuscaloosa, Alabama — January 26, 2017. The Center for Religious Expression (CRE) filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Rodney Keister, a travelling missionary evangelist, against the University of Alabama for banning him from sharing his faith on public sidewalks without the university’s advance permission.
On Thursday March 10, 2016, Keister went to the University of Alabama, a public university, to share the Gospel with students. Though he didn’t cause a disturbance, campus police and officials soon approached Keister, and informed him he could not engage in any form of communication on campus without obtaining university permission at least ten days in advance. They warned Keister that refusal to comply would result in arrest for criminal trespass.
Not wanting to cause trouble, Keister inquired of where he could speak freely, and the campus police advised that University Boulevard, about a block away, was a public city street, so he would be allowed to share his views on the sidewalks there. Keister therefore complied with the university’s demands and relocated. But, not long thereafter, police approached him again and informed that the university viewed that sidewalk as their property and that Keister would not be able to speak there either. With no other option to reach students, Keister left.
On Keister’s behalf, CRE sent a letter to university officials, pointing out the unconstitutionality of subjecting Keister’s mere conversations and leafletting to a permit requirement, asking the university to allow Keister to proceed with his message. The university declined. Left with no other option, CRE filed suit on Keister’s behalf.
“Public sidewalks have long been the quintessential place for harmless modes of expression like Mr. Keister’s,” said CRE Chief Counsel Nate Kellum. “The university cannot shut down speech on open public sidewalks just because they pass by a university’s campus.”