Victims of alleged free speech and religious freedom violations will have more opportunities to seek justice after the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 Monday in favor of two former Georgia college students.
Chike Uzuegbunam and Joseph Bradford had been fighting for the right to continue a case against their former school despite already forcing a policy change and asking for just nominal damages, which are worth next to nothing in monetary terms.
Justices ruled that lawsuits like theirs can continue even when the only relief left for the court to offer is mostly symbolic.
“Nominal damages can redress Uzuegbunam’s injury even if he cannot or choose not to quantify that harm in economic terms,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas in the majority opinion, which was joined by all but Chief Justice John Roberts.
The case originated five years ago, when Uzuegbunam was still a student at Georgia Gwinnett College. He filed a lawsuit challenging the school’s free speech policies after twice being stopped from speaking and distributing literature about his evangelical Christian faith.
Bradford later joined the suit, arguing that Georgia Gwinnett’s treatment of Uzuegbunam led him to remain silent about his own religious beliefs. The men fought for updates to campus speech code, alleging violations of their free speech and religious freedom rights.
Initially, school officials pushed back, but eventually overhauled their policy. Students can now share their faith and hand out literature on most of the campus instead of in very small free speech zones.
After the rule change, Georgia Gwinnett asked the court to dismiss Uzuegbunam’s case, arguing that his request for nominal damages wasn’t significant enough to justify keeping the lawsuit going.
“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 ruled in the school’s favor, but now the Supreme Court has overturned those decisions.
A wide variety of advocacy groups, including the ACLU, the Catholic Church and the American Humanist Association, called for such an outcome in briefs filed with the court. They noted that constitutional rights cases often involve only nominal damages claims, since it’s hard to quantify how much it costs someone to be silenced or forced to hide their faith.
“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,” said Kate Anderson, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, the law firm representing Uzuegbunam, to the Deseret News in January.
Moving forward, it will be easier to ensure that institutions and individuals that violate someone’s constitutional rights will be forced to acknowledge their error and adopt a better approach moving forward, she added.
“Alliance Defending Freedom has had to file lawsuits against some universities multiple times,” she said. “It’s important to get a legal resolution that tells colleges they can’t engage in this kind of behavior.”