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The Supreme Court delivered a blow to universities that impose restrictive speech codes in order to chill unfavored speech on campus, ruling 8-1 that a former student can seek nominal financial damages against the school that restricted his constitutional speech.
In July 2016, Chike Uzuegbunam was handing out pamphlets and sharing the Gospel on campus when he was stopped by college officials who told him he must secure a permit and reserve a “free speech zone” before being able to continue his activities.
Uzuegbunam complied and received approval to speak at one of the school’s two free speech zones, which make up 0.0015 percent of the total campus. When he began speaking and distributing materials, campus police stepped in to stop him. They said that they had received calls about his activities and claimed he was disturbing the peace and violating the student code of conduct. Campus police explained that the “free speech” zone was not reserved for “open air” speaking.
“College officials didn’t really care about where I was standing, they just didn’t like what I was saying. So, they invoked these policies to silence me.”
He returned with a lawsuit, but he did not seek monetary damages, but rather nominal damages. The lawsuit stated that originally the school “doubled down,” alleging that the school claimed the First Amendment did not cover his speech.
Legal scholar Jonathan Turley wrote,
“Georgia Gwinnett College seemed to grasp for any claim to keep the students from speaking. It first said that their speech constituted incitement akin to “fighting words.” It then eliminated the policies and sought to dismiss the lawsuits as moot. It is a common pattern where universities will force students or academics to go to court and then later drop the cases when it is clear that they may lose.
Because the school changed its policy, two federal courts dismissed the case, claiming the plaintiff’s point was moot. Uzuegbunam’s attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom said that dismissing the case gave the university a “free pass.” They stated,
“A Supreme Court victory [for Uzuegbunam] would likely mean that if (and when) college officials violate a student’s constitutional rights, those officials could be held responsible. And students like Chike would be more likely to get the justice they deserve. A victory could also put more weight behind court decisions that call out constitutional violations, deterring college officials from abusing their authority in the future.”
As Turley went on to write, the Supreme Court has said “enough.” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion in the case of Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, stating,
“For purposes of this appeal, it is undisputed that Uzuegbunam experienced a completed violation of his constitutional rights when respondents enforced their speech policies against him. Because ‘every violation imports damage’ … nominal damages can redress Uzuegbunam’s injury even if he cannot or chooses not to quantify that harm in economic terms.”
Chief Justice John Roberts was the sole dissenting justice. He wrote:
“In the Court’s view, nominal damages can save a case from mootness because any amount of money — no matter how trivial — ‘can redress a past injury.’ But an award of nominal damages does not alleviate the harms suffered by a plaintiff, and is not intended to. If nominal damages can preserve a live controversy, then federal courts will be required to give advisory opinions whenever a plaintiff tacks on a request for a dollar.”
Darpana Sheth, vice president of litigation for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), celebrated the majority’s take on the case. In a statement, she said,
“The Supreme Court got it right. Today’s ruling protects students’ ability to vindicate thUzuegbunam v. Preczewskieir priceless First Amendment rights and hold public university officials accountable. As FIRE’s two decades of firsthand experience shows, public colleges and universities across the country routinely infringe student speech rights but can escape accountability by relying on a student’s impending graduation or otherwise mooting the case by changing the policy after a lawsuit is filed. The Court correctly recognized that these violations impose real harm, even if the silenced student cannot ‘quantify that harm in economic terms.’”
The Court’s decision prevents schools from gambling that they can violate a student’s right to free speech and get away with it. Previously, schools could restrict free speech and wait to see if a student would stand up to them. If the student brought a lawsuit, the school only had to change its policy to avoid punishment.
By allowing for nominal damages, the Court sends a message to universities that they must respect free speech. College campuses should be places where free speech is not only allowed but nurtured and encouraged.
Individuals like Uzuegbunam are needed to courageously stand for free speech. It would have been much easier for him to allow the school to silence him, but he continued to fight for four years, not to receive a payment but to ensure that schools cannot continue to silence other students in the future. If a school unjustly restricts a student’s free speech, it is essential that that student make it known and take action. With this ruling, they are now exceedingly likely to prevail.