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SCOTUS Says Government Officials Must Be Accountable For Violating Constitutional Rights

Our friends at Alliance Defending Freedom have alerted us to a recent Supreme Court

decision in the case of Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, a seemingly obscure case about campus freedom of speech and religion with big implications for those who have been subjected to government oppression.


The case was brought by former students at Georgia’s Gwinnett College who wished to exercise their religion by sharing their faith on campus while enrolled there. In 2016, Chike Uzuegbunam talked with interested students and handed out religious literature on campus grounds. Uzuegbunam stopped after a campus police officer informed him that campus policy prohibited distributing written religious materials outside areas designated for that purpose. A college official later explained to Uzuegbunam that he could speak about his religion or distribute materials only in two designated speech areas on campus, and even then only after securing a permit.


However, when Uzuegbunam obtained the required permit and tried to speak in a free speech zone, a campus police officer again asked him to stop, this time saying that people had complained about his speech. Campus policy at that time prohibited using the free speech zone to say anything that “disturbs the peace and/or comfort of person(s).” The officer told Uzuegbunam that his speech violated campus policy because it had led to complaints, and the officer threatened Uzuegbunam with disciplinary action if he continued.


Uzuegbunam again complied with the order to stop speaking. Another student who shares Uzuegbunam’s faith, Joseph Bradford, decided not to speak about religion because of these events. Both Uzuegbunam and Bradford sued certain college officials charged with enforcement of the college’s speech policies, arguing that these policies violated the First Amendment. As relevant here, the students sought injunctive relief and nominal damages. 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 8-1 ruling written by Justice Clarence Thomas, with only Chief Justice John Roberts dissenting, found that “unlike an award of attorney’s fees and costs which may be the byproduct of a successful suit, an award of nominal damages constitutes relief on the merits.” And, while a request for redress in the form of nominal damages does not guarantee entry to court, because in addition to redressability, the plaintiff must establish the other elements of standing and satisfy all other relevant requirements, such as pleading a cognizable cause of action. However, since Uzuegbunam did experience “a completed violation of his constitutional rights” when respondents enforced their speech policies against him nominal damages can redress Uzuegbunam’s injury even if he cannot or chooses not to quantify that harm in economic terms.


As Amy Howe explained in a post for SCOTUS Blog, a federal district court threw out Uzuegbunam’s lawsuit after the college changed its policy and Uzuegbunam (as well as Joseph Bradford, another student who had joined the lawsuit) graduated. Although Uzuegbunam had asked for nominal damages – that is, symbolic damages, such as a dollar – in addition to his request for an order barring the college from enforcing its now-rescinded policies, the court reasoned that the nominal damages were not enough to allow Uzuegbunam’s case to continue. After the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld that decision, Uzuegbunam went to the Supreme Court, which agreed last summer to weigh in.


Representing the students, lawyer Kristen Waggoner of Alliance Defending Freedom told the justices that when college officials stopped Uzuegbunam and Bradford from sharing their faith, they caused “concrete injuries” for which nominal damages can provide a remedy. Those damages, regardless of the label, would put money in the students’ pockets, Waggoner said, and they therefore satisfy the Constitution’s requirement that federal courts are limited to resolving active disputes with real interests at stake – and the Supreme Court ultimately agreed with that argument.


Now, here’s where this case gets really important and interesting.


As Ms. Howe noted, in one of her questions for Hashim Mooppan, the counselor to the U.S. solicitor general who argued on behalf of the federal government in support of the students, Justice Amy Coney Barrett reminded her colleagues that the potential implications of their ruling extend beyond the First Amendment. In last term’s challenge to New York City’s ban on the transport of guns outside the city, the justices ruled that the case was moot because the city had changed its policy. If the challengers had sought nominal damages, she asked, would the decision have come out the other way? (Emphasis ours.)


Yes, Mooppan responded, because it would have been a live claim. When the justices sent the New York case back to the lower court last year, Alito – in a dissent joined in part by Thomas and Gorsuch – wrote that “a claim for nominal damages precludes mootness.”


Alliance Defending Freedom General Counsel Kristen Waggoner summed up the court’s decision this way; “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. 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.”


  • Uzuegbunam v Preczewski

  • Alliance Defending Freedom

  • freedom of speech

  • Freedom of religion

  • religious materials

  • nominal damages

  • Justice Amy Coney Barrett

  • Kristen Waggoner

  • government accountability

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