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Explainer: The Supreme Court sides with former student on religious free speech

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March 8, 2021

In a clear victory for religious liberty, the Supreme Court ruled today that governments can be held accountable for past violations of First Amendment freedoms. The 8-1 ruling in a case entitled Uzuegbunam et al. v. Preczewski et al. held that a “request for nominal damages” may be used to establish legal standing to address a previous violation of a constitutional right. The Court disagreed with lower courts, saying this case was not moot and that nominal damages can be used to redress a past injury.

Justice Thomas wrote the majority opinion and was joined by all other justices except Chief Justice Roberts. This decision also marks the first time Chief Justice Roberts has ever been the sole dissenting justice during his tenure. 

What is this case about?

In 2016, Chike Uzuegbunam, then a student at Georgia Gwinnett College, talked with interested students about his Christian faith and distributed literature on campus grounds. A campus police officer approached Uzuegbunam and informed him that the college had a policy in place that prohibited the distribution of religious materials unless they were within two designated free speech areas. After acquiring the necessary permit to speak in one of these zones, Uzuegbunam was again asked to stop by the campus police because another policy limited speech within those zones that “disturbs the peace and/or comfort of person(s).” The officer told Uzuegbunam that his speech violated these policies and threatened him with disciplinary action should he continue. Due to these events, both Uzuegbunam and another student who shared Uzuegbunam’s faith, Joseph Bradford, stopped speaking about their faith in these so-called “free speech” areas.

Both Uzuegbunam and Bradford sued college officials for enforcing these policies, arguing that the restrictions constituted a violation of their rights under the First Amendment. The students sought both injunctive relief and nominal damages. The request for injunctive relief — a legal order that would suspend the policy — was dismissed as college officials chose to discontinue their policies rather than defend them. However, the students continued to press their claim for nominal damages — a small sum of money sought in order to secure a legal judgement in a case — which was heard before the Supreme Court in January of this year.

What is the significance of this case?

This case is an important case in the areas of free speech and the free exercise of religion in an area with little case law on this topic—college campuses. As a public university, Georgia Gwinnett College should have allowed Uzuegbunam to express his views freely. Instead, they sought to deny his First Amendment right to free speech until he graduated, at which point they changed their policies and argued that the case should be dismissed as moot (i.e., dismissed by the court because the policy has been rescinded and there was therefore no longer a live controversy between the parties). In requesting “nominal damages,” Uzuegbunam argued the university should not escape accountability and retain the ability to restore the problematic policies after his graduation.

Students like Uzuegbunam do not give up their civil liberties when they decide to attend public colleges and universities. But unfortunately this kind of policing of speech exhibited by Georgia Gwinnett College is common. And until now, these schools were able to infringe the rights of students through these controversial policies, only to change the policy at the eleventh hour or wait for the student’s graduation. Uzuegbunam’s case will allow the federal courts to provide relief for students for the first time.

How did the ERLC engage in this case? 

The ERLC filed a brief with other religious organizations asserting that nominal damages are necessary to protect free speech and religious liberty. The brief argued that, “Nominal damages are particularly important to remedy the infringement of constitutional rights.”

Travis Wussow, the ERLC’s general counsel and vice president for public policy said that, “The government should be held accountable when it violates our fundamental rights.” He went on to say that, “This case is important not just for free speech and religious freedom on college campuses but a number of other circumstances, including public health orders during a pandemic.”

What does today’s ruling mean moving forward?

This case provides additional legal tools for religious liberty and free speech advocates to hold governments accountable for violating the First Amendment. This case represents a crucial victory at a time when colleges and other government entities have acted without fear of accountability or consequences in burdening constitutional freedoms. When colleges across the country implement unconstitutional practices, they can avoid legal challenges by running out the clock, waiting for the student to graduate or suspending the policies at the last minute so no definitive judgement is rendered. However, the Supreme Court has made it clear that public universities can no longer rely on such tactics and that they can be held accountable for denying students the right to speak freely on their campuses.

In response to the ruling, ERLC President Russell Moore commented:

This clear 8-1 ruling by the Supreme Court today is significant not only for Chike Uzuegbunam, but for all those who might one day need to appeal to the courts for justice. As we argued in our amicus brief to the Court, it is a fundamental harm for the state to infringe upon a person’s right to religion or free expression. Today’s ruling strengthens every American’s right to seek and obtain justice when those foundational rights are infringed.

The ERLC commends the Court for this excellent ruling and remains committed to defending these fundamental freedoms everywhere.