The Supreme Court ruled Monday, over a firm dissent from Chief Justice John Roberts, that a wronged alumnus had every right to seek damages from the Georgia college that violated his First Amendment rights some four years ago.
In an 8-1 decision penned by conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, the court affirmed that Chike Uzuegbunam was deprived of his right to free speech, public practice and assembly when Georgia Gwinnett College, a public institution, denied him the ability to preach the gospel on campus.
Uzuegbunam was forced off campus for disturbing the peace in 2016, when he set up shop by the Georgia Gwinnett library and began to share his faith with fellow students, handing out Christian literature and discussing the Bible. Before his removal, campus officials first demanded he procure a permit and operate only in established “free speech zones,” but when that failed to keep him from his work, further action was taken.
When Uzuegbunam finally filed suit under the strong arm of the Alliance Defending Freedom, the college doubled down, suggesting students had no right to preach on campus. The defense soon proved untenable, however, and the college would go on to strike swaths of its speech policy in the hope courts would toss the suit, ruling moot any legal questions posed.
NEW: SCOTUS rules in favor of former student at public Georgia college who sued for “nominal damages” after he was stopped from speaking. Court holds 8-1 (Roberts is sole dissenter) that nominal damages claims are enough to establish standing to sue for constitutional violation.
— SCOTUSblog (@SCOTUSblog) March 8, 2021
An ADF decision to pursue nominal damages amounting to just $1 prevented such a result, leading the nation’s highest court to the conclusion that public entities must always be subject to accountability for past wrongs.
According to the majority, legal standing exists as long as the plaintiff maintains a “personal interest in the dispute.” The size of that interest was of little consequence — as were broader policy changes on the part of the defendant.
“It is undisputed that Uzuegbunam experienced a completed violation of his constitutional rights when respondents enforced their speech policies against him,” Thomas wrote.
“Because ‘every violation [of a right] imports damage,’ nominal damages can redress Uzuegbunam’s injury even if he cannot or chooses not to quantify that harm in economic terms.”
Roberts was the only jurist to move opposite that ideologically bipartisan opinion, forecasting a “radical expansion” of the federal judiciary in the months and years that followed the ruling.
The requested damages would do little to change the plaintiff’s “status or condition at all” — a reality that led the chief justice to suggest Uzuegbunam had not, in fact, maintained a “personal interest” in the case, only an interest in the precedent that could come from a high court ruling.
“The Court sees no problem with turning judges into advice columnists,” Roberts wrote. “In its view, the common law and (to a lesser extent) our cases require that federal courts open their doors to any plaintiff who asks for a dollar.”
Appointed and confirmed under Republican President George W. Bush in 2005, Roberts had yet to stand alone against his colleagues in nearly 16 years on the court.
The chief justice is no stalwart on the issue of judicial restraint, however. A prominent swing vote in recent years, Roberts is well-known for having given the Affordable Care Act a hand out of legal high water in 2012, when his majority opinion in “National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius” redefined the individual mandate penalty as a tax.
His decision is widely believed to have averted the mass controversy that would have stemmed from overturning the long-awaited health care solution, but it did generate bad blood with hardline conservatives, who believe Roberts expanded court power to fit his political needs.
— Alliance Defending Freedom (@AllianceDefends) March 8, 2021
Regardless of the chief justice’s uncharacteristic restraint and fiery response, First Amendment advocates are already hailing the Supreme Court’s decision in Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski as a major victory.
In a Tuesday statement to The Western Journal, ADF senior counsel Kate Anderson described herself as “thrilled” with the high court affirmation that “government should be accountable to the victim when they violate someone’s constitutional rights.”
The case had long been viewed as a beacon of hope for audiences worried about free speech on the modern college campus — and the Monday ruling will likely open the door for further legal challenges to progressive university policies that restrict free speech.
“The Court said that the lower court should not have dismissed the case without holding Georgia Gwinnett officials accountable for violating Chike’s free speech rights. By doing this, the Court reaffirmed that our constitutional rights are invaluable and must always be protected,” Anderson said.
“Constitutional rights are priceless; this decision reaffirms that principle. A win for Chike is a win for all of us.”
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