Georgia college tried to restrict Christian speech to small zones on campus.
In 2016, a student at a public college in Georgia felt called to share his Christian faith with others on campus. That student, Chike Uzuegbunam, set out to distribute Christian pamphlets and engage his fellow students at Georgia Gwinnett College, northeast of Atlanta, in conversations about Christ. A campus police officer told him he was out of bounds because the university’s policy required him to stand in a designated area to conduct his proselytizing.
Uzuegbunam obeyed the officer, but a college official explained that he could speak about religion and distribute materials in two small “free speech zones” after securing a permit.
But, according to a U.S. Supreme Court summary of the case, when Uzuegbunam obtained the permit and tried to speak in a free speech zone, a campus police officer again asked him to stop, this time saying that people had complained about his speech.
“Campus policy at that time prohibited using the free speech zone to say anything that ‘disturbs the peace and/or comfort of person(s),’” the court explained. “The officer told Uzuegbunam that his speech violated campus policy because it had led to complaints, and the officer threatened Uzuegbunam with disciplinary action if he continued. Uzuegbunam again complied with the order to stop speaking. Another student who shares Uzuegbunam’s faith, Joseph Bradford, decided not to speak about religion because of these events.”
Both Uzuegbunam and Bradford sued certain college officials charged with enforcement of the college’s speech policies, arguing that these policies violated the First Amendment. The students sought an injunction against enforcement of the policy and nominal damages, a largely symbolic monetary amount. The college eventually changed the policy, then sought dismissal of the case on the ground that the policy change left the students without standing to sue.
Though Uzuegbunam and Bradford agreed that the policy change rendered their request for injunctive relief moot, they disputed whether they had standing to maintain the suit based on their remaining claim for nominal damages. The Atlanta-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that while a request for nominal damages can sometimes keep a case alive, the students’ plea for nominal damages alone could not by itself establish standing.
On Monday, in an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Uzuegbunam and Bradford can continue their lawsuit. Chief Justice John Roberts was the sole dissenter, pointing out that Uzuegbunam and Bradford are no longer students at the college and have not alleged actual damages, and that the speech policy no longer exists.
But the majority opinion, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, said it is “undisputed that Uzuegbunam experienced a completed violation of his constitutional rights when respondents enforced their speech policies against him.”
Citing a legal precedent that said that because every violation of a right “imports damage,” Thomas wrote that “nominal damages can redress Uzuegbunam’s injury even if he cannot or chooses not to quantify that harm in economic terms.”
Amy Howe, who writes for the SCOTUS Blog, boiled down Thomas’ long and winding legal reasoning in the decision:
Thomas began by looking back at the role of nominal damages in early English and American law. It was “well established,” he explained, that nominal damages were available when rights were violated, even “without furnishing any evidence of actual damage.” Otherwise, Thomas observed, there would have been no remedy at all for some violations, “such as due process or voting rights, that were not readily reducible to monetary valuation.”
Kristen Waggoner, General Counsel of Alliance Defending Freedom, who argued the case before the Supreme Court in January, said on Monday that the high court “has rightly affirmed that government officials should be held accountable for the injuries they cause.
“When public officials violate constitutional rights, it causes serious harm to the victims,” Waggoner said in a statement. “Groups representing diverse ideological viewpoints supported our clients because the threat to our constitutionally protected freedoms doesn’t stop with free speech rights or a college campus. When government officials engage in misconduct without consequences, it leaves victims without recourse, undermines the nation’s commitment to protecting constitutional rights, and emboldens the government to engage in future violations.”