The Supreme Court recently issued a major ruling in a dispute over free speech on the grounds of a public college. By a vote of 8-1, with Chief Justice Roberts as the lone dissenter, the Court held that a Georgia student’s claims of violations of his First Amendment rights against college officials were not mooted by the school’s decision to abandon the speech restrictions at issue. Specifically, the Court found that the student had standing to proceed with his First Amendment lawsuit even though the student was only seeking nominal damages in the suit. The case had long been on the radar of First Amendment advocates and resulted in a unique confluence of support for the plaintiffs from both ends of the ideological spectrum (and many in between) with numerous liberal and conservative groups submitting a raft of amicus curiae urging the Court to rule in favor of the plaintiffs.
The case, Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, was brought by two students at Georgia Gwinnett College, a public college in Georgia located in the Atlanta suburb of Lawrenceville. The college had a campus policy that restricted public speaking and distribution of written materials to only two designated “free speech expression areas” and required a permit to do so. According to the lawsuit, these speech zones occupied less than 0.0015% of the campus, and are open only 18 hours a week.
One of the plaintiffs, Chike Uzuegbunam, is an evangelical Christian who was handing out religious literature on the campus when a campus police officer told him that he could only distribute literature by reserving one of the two designated free speech areas. The complaint alleges that Uzuegbunam followed the officer’s instructions and obtained a permit, but, within a few minutes of starting to hand out literature and discuss his religious beliefs, another officer told Uzuegbunam that he must stop as his speech was disturbing others and therefore violated the college’s “disorderly conduct” policy which prohibited any speech, even in the free speech zones, that “disturbed the peace and/or comfort of person(s).”
In December 2016, Uzuegbunam filed a lawsuit in federal district court against several college officials and police officers. In his complaint, Uzuegbunam alleged that the college’s policies violated his and other’s First Amendment rights. Another student, Joseph Bradford, later joined the lawsuit as a plaintiff alleging that he wanted to share his faith but was afraid to do so because of the college’s policies. The plaintiffs sought nominal damages and injunctive relief in the form of a declaration that the policy was unconstitutional and that the college was prohibited from enforcing it. The school initially defended its policies, arguing that the religious speech was akin to fighting words. A few months after the lawsuit was filed, however, the college changed the policy and sought to have the lawsuit dismissed as moot.
The district court threw out the case, ruling that the abandonment of the policy at issue rendered injunctive relief unavailable and although the plaintiffs sought nominal damages–an award that is small or largely symbolic, such as a dollar–this was not enough to allow the case to continue. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision.
Eventually, the issue reached the Supreme Court which reversed the decisions of the 11th Circuit and the District Court, finding that the case was still live because of Uzegbunam’s request for nominal damages. Specifically, the Court held that a request for nominal damages satisfies the redressability element of Article III standing where a plaintiff’s claim is based on a completed violation of a legal right.
Justice Clarence Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court, which was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett. The Court began its analysis by looking back at the role of nominal damages in early English and American law. The Court explained that it was “well established” that nominal damages were available when certain rights were violated, even “without furnishing any evidence of actual damage.” Absent this, the Court reasoned, many violations of individual rights would have no remedy at all, “such as due process or voting rights, that were not readily reducible to monetary valuation.” Because of this history of making nominal damages available as a remedy in early English and American law, a request for nominal damages will satisfy the third element of standing as long as the plaintiff’s claim is based on a violation that has already finished.
Noting that “the law recognized ‘not merely pecuniary’ injury but also ‘personal injury’” and thus “every violation [of a right] imports damage,” the Court recognized that “a single dollar often cannot provide full redress,” but nevertheless the ability “to effectuate a partial remedy satisfies the redressability requirement.” A contrary rule, the Court reasoned, would result in “the oddity of privileging small-dollar economic rights over important, but not easily quantifiable, nonpecuniary rights.” Acknowledging the college’s arguments that ruling in favor of the plaintiffs would effectively gut the standing requirement and open the flood gates of litigation, the Court emphasized that the ruling would not “guarantee entry to court” whenever a plaintiff asked for nominal damages. A plaintiff, the Court stressed, would still have to meet all of the other requirements to allow his lawsuit to go forward—which the Court concluded that Uzuegbunam had done (the Court did not decide whether the other plaintiff Bradford had established standing and left it to the District Court to decide this on remand).
Roberts penned the lone dissent in the case. In it, he wrote that he would have ruled that the case was moot because the speech restrictions no longer exist and the student had not asked for any “actual damages.” He reasoned that an award of nominal damages simply represents a determination by the Court “that the plaintiff’s interpretation of the law is correct — nothing more.” According to Roberts, the majority’s ruling conflicted with the proscription against federal courts giving advisory opinions.
The Court’s full opinion is available online here.
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