In the summer of 2016, Chike Uzuegbunam was a college student with more on his mind than studying and socializing with friends. He wanted to share his faith with others enrolled at Georgia Gwinnett College, but he didn’t realize how complicated that would be.
He faced his first obstacle that July, when a campus police officer stopped him from distributing religious literature outside the school library. At the time, Georgia Gwinnett only allowed such activities in so-called free speech zones, so Uzuegbunam was asked to pack up his supplies.
The next month, he secured a reservation for one of the free speech areas and brought his religious literature back to campus. But, once again, he was stopped by campus police, who said Uzuegbunam’s reservation only covered handing out materials and having private conversations, not speaking loudly about his faith.
Discouraged and frustrated, Uzuegbunam filed a federal lawsuit against his school. He challenged Georgia Gwinnett’s rules for student expression, alleging violations of his free speech and religious exercise rights.
Four years later, Uzuegbunam’s legal battle is before the U.S. Supreme Court, although probably not for the reason you think. He’s already succeeded in forcing a change to campus policy, but not in getting a judge to say Georgia Gwinnett violated his rights.
School officials paint Uzuegbunam as a sore winner, arguing that his case is now moot. However, a wide range of civil rights advocacy groups and religious organizations support his quest to keep fighting and say the future of First Amendment litigation is at stake.
On Tuesday, Uzuegbunam will ask the Supreme Court to allow his case to continue. The justices’ answer could significantly affect the circumstances under which people facing civil rights violations can seek legal relief and how long any related government or institutional policy changes will last, legal experts said.
Forms of relief
In general, lawsuits like Uzuegbunam’s begin with an alleged constitutional rights violation and end when there’s nothing left for judges to decide.
If petitioners want their case to continue, they have to show that they’re still in need of some kind of relief that only a court ruling can provide, said Kate Anderson, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, the law firm representing Uzuegbunam.
Legal relief can come in a variety of forms, so it’s up to the people who bring a lawsuit to outline what they’re seeking. They can fight for a policy change or to be paid back for related financial damage.
They can also ask for a more symbolic kind of relief called nominal damages, which are used in cases where it’s hard to quantify the harm someone faced, Anderson said.
“Nominal damages are a mechanism that the Supreme Court put in place to compensate personal harms ... that don’t really have their own independent, monetary value,” she said, citing the pain someone experiences when they can’t share their faith as an example.
If a judge awards someone nominal damages, then the guilty party has to pay them $1. It’s a simple but meaningful way to acknowledge that something bad really did take place, Anderson said.
“Even though (nominal damages) amount to just a dollar, they force government officials to do something to recognize that they violated somebody’s rights. That does impact how they’ll behave in the future,” she said.
Although Uzuegbunam initially sought a few different types of relief, the only claim that remains in his lawsuit — in the aftermath of his graduation and Georgia Gwinnett’s voluntary policy change — is for nominal damages. Georgia Gwinnett officials argue that such a request is not significant enough to sustain his case, which was joined by another student in 2017.
“Since the college permanently revised the policies petitioners challenged, nominal damages would give them no more than the satisfaction of having a federal court say they are right,” the college officials said in one of their Supreme Court briefs.
A U.S. district court and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals accepted Georgia Gwinnett’s argument and declared the case to be moot.
Uzuegbunam appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to weigh in on the status of lawsuits that involve only a nominal damages claim.
What’s at stake
As Anderson noted, free speech and religious freedom cases often involve nominal damages claims. That helps explain why the American Civil Liberties Union, the Catholic Church, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and a wide range of other groups all filed briefs in support of Uzuegbunam’s case.
“The ACLU, American Humanist Association and other organizations from across the ideological spectrum agree with Chike,” Anderson said. “We aren’t often all on the same side of issues, but we all recognize that it’s important that priceless constitutional rights are protected.”
The protection offered by policy changes is incomplete, she added, noting that, unless a court actually declares that a constitutional rights violation has occurred, schools, prisons and other institutions can get away with undoing the changes they made once the person who brought a lawsuit is gone.
“Alliance Defending Freedom has had to file lawsuits against some universities multiple times,” Anderson said. “It’s important to get a legal resolution that tells colleges they can’t engage in this kind of behavior.”
The ACLU made a similar point in its amicus brief, which was joined by three other advocacy groups.
“By preventing governments from terminating civil rights cases prematurely, nominal damages claims produce rulings that mark the path for government actors, helping them avoid future violations,” the brief explained.
A Supreme Court ruling in favor of Uzuegbunam would also ensure that students at other schools will not experience the same civil rights violations he faced, Anderson said.
A ruling against Georgia Gwinnett “lets other campuses know that you can’t just shut down student speech,” she said.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski is expected by the end of June.