A local Christian evangelist filed a lawsuit Thursday against South Dakota School of Mines & Technology claiming the school blocked his right to free speech by not allowing him to preach in open areas around campus.
The school considered his preaching to be commercial speech rather than religious speech and said he must pay $50 for a limited area inside the Surbeck Center, which serves as the student union and a conference center, according to the lawsuit.
Mark Gavin of Black Hawk filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court, asking for the opportunity to preach on the "quad" and the grassy area in front of the Surbeck Center, an area buzzing with students during the day.
The lawsuit dates back to 2010, when Gavin first approached school officials about his intentions. The 39-year-old man moved to the Rapid City area from San Antonio that year. He declined comment when reached Tuesday in Black Hawk.
The Center for Religious Expression, a Memphis, Tenn., based nonprofit, filed the lawsuit on Gavin's behalf. The lawsuit names Acting President Duane Hrncir, Vice President of Student Affairs Patricia Mahon and Surbeck Center Director Stephanie Lindsley as defendants.
The center's chief counsel, Nate Kellum, said Gavin is not selling phones or credit cards and that being confined to a table infringes on his rights.
"It is not conducive to his type of speech," Kellum said. "They are classifying his speech as commercial speech, and it is not."
A statement from the School of Mines said school policy is to not comment on pending litigation.
Mines students interviewed Thursday said they support the school and that confining such speakers to the Surbeck Center makes sense.
"If I am interested in what he has to say, I can easily go over there. He is at one of the most public places on campus. It is easily accessible," said Daniel Nix, 20, of Sioux Falls. "If I am interested, I can learn. If not, then I don't have to be around it."
Nix's father is a Christian preacher, but he said some get carried away when evangelizing and that situations could get out of hand, depending on the person.
"I think it is good if they are going around and sharing whatever they believe, but it never just stops there. People that try to preach religion always keep pushing it. If I say I know what I believe they never stop," Nix said.
The lawsuit says Gavin does not solicit donations or seek conversion from people he approaches.
According to the lawsuit, the State Board of Regents, which governs Mines, has a policy in place for how private parties can use state facilities. Under the policy, private parties can use grounds around campus "contingent upon agreement to avoid disruption of institutional uses of the facilities or grounds, interference with students or employees, or damage, fouling or littering facilities, grounds or other properties."
The campus grounds are not available for commercial purposes, which is how the school classified Gavin. Kellum said Gavin had been trying to work out the issue with school officials since 2010 but officials did not budge from the policy. The lawsuit seeks money to cover court costs and lawyer fees and the right to preach around campus.
"This case is not about money, it is about him having access to his First Amendment right just like anyone else," Kellum said.
Cody Burdick, an 18-year-old student at Mines, said he understands the university's stance. While Gavin may not be offensive or dangerous, allowing him to preach around campus opens the door to anyone, he said.
"For the university's sake, they are probably trying to do the right thing in that sense," Burdick said. "I think they are doing the right thing with that, instead of having people allowed to roam."
Kellum said that argument does not apply in Gavin's situation.
"I think the problem with that is then you get to the point where you are judging the content of people's speech," Kellum said. "What the Constitution protects is the speech of everyone."