The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled in favor of a former Georgia college student who was prevented from expressing religious views in a free-speech zone on campus.
In an 8-1 decision, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority that the student, Chike Uzuegbunam, “experienced a completed violation of his constitutional rights when respondents enforced their speech policies against him.”
“Nominal damages can redress [his] injury even if he cannot or chooses not to quantify that harm in economic terms,” Thomas wrote.
Uzuegbunam was joined in the lawsuit against Georgia Gwinnett College by another former student, Joseph Bradford, who claimed he withheld sharing his faith on campus because of the college’s treatment of Uzuegbunam.
The sole dissent came from Chief Justice John Roberts, who insisted the case was moot because Uzuegbunam and Bradford are no longer students at the college.
“The challenged restrictions no longer exist. And the petitioners have not alleged actual damages,” he wrote. “The case is therefore moot because a federal court cannot grant Uzuegbunam and Bradford any effectual relief whatever.'”
The former students’ lawyers with the Alliance Defending Freedom said Uzuegbunam “tried to share his Christian faith with other students on the Lawrenceville, Georgia, campus in 2016.”
“College officials quickly stopped him because he had not reserved one of two tiny zones where free expression was allowed without a permit – zones that together made up only 0.0015% of campus,” the said. “When Uzuegbunam reserved a zone and again tried to share his faith, officials again ordered him to stop because someone complained, which made his evangelization efforts ‘disorderly conduct’ under a Gwinnett policy that applied to any expression that ‘disturbs the peace and/or comfort of person(s).'”
Their appeal to the Supreme Court explained that two lower courts dismissed the case because the college changed its policy after their case was filed. The courts argued the policy change made the free speech issue moot.
But the appeal pointed out that six circuits hold that a government’s policy change does not moot nominal-damages claims.
Kristen Waggoner, an attorney for the Alliance Defending Freedom, said the Supreme 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. 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,” Waggoner said.
“Officials within our public institutions shouldn’t get a free pass for violating constitutional rights on campus or anywhere else. When such officials engage in misconduct but face no consequences, it leaves victims without recourse, undermines the nation’s commitment to protecting constitutional rights, and emboldens the government to engage in future violations. We are pleased that the Supreme Court weighed in on the side of justice for those victims.”
The Supreme Court noted Uzuegbunam wanted to speak with interested students about his faith. When silenced by a security officer, he obtained a special permit for a “designated speech area.”
But then security officers shut him down because “people had complained about his speech.”
“As relevant here, the students sought injunctive relief and nominal damages,” the court said. “The college officials ultimately chose to discontinue the challenged policies rather than to defend them, and they sought dismissal on the ground that the policy change left the students without standing to sue. The parties agreed that the policy change rendered the students’ request for injunctive relief moot, but disputed whether the students had standing to maintain the suit based on their remaining claim for nominal damages.”
The ruling said a request for nominal damages “satisfies the redressability element necessary for Article III standing where a plaintiff’s claim is based on a completed violation of a legal right.”
“To establish Article III standing, the Constitution requires a plaintiff to identify an injury in fact that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct and to seek a remedy likely to redress that injury,” the opinion said.
“The dispute here concerns whether the remedy Uzuegbunam sought—nominal damages—can redress the completed constitutional violation that he alleges occurred when campus officials enforced the speech policies against him. … The prevailing rule at common law was that a party whose rights are invaded can always recover nominal damages without furnishing evidence of actual damage.”
The students had attracted support from atheist, Jewish, Catholic and Muslim organizations that were concerned about speech rights on college campuses.
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