Supreme Court lets Christian student seek damages for free speech, Roberts dissents alone
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WASHINGTON, D.C., March 8, 2021 (LifeSiteNews) – The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 Monday that Georgia Gwinnett College may be sued for damages because it violated the speech rights of a Christian student, with Chief Justice John Roberts being the sole dissenting vote for the first time in his tenure.
Uzuegbunam et al. v. Preczewski et al. concerned GGC student Chike Uzuegbunam, who was punished for professing his faith on campus outside of narrowly-defined “speech zones.”
In 2016, college officials shut him down for sharing Christian leaflets with other students on campus outside one of two designated speech zones. He later reserved one of the zones and secured college permission to use it to talk about Christianity, but was stopped a second time in response to a complaint.
Gwinnett’s policies forbid any expression “which disturbs the peace and/or comfort of person(s),” with violators subject to disorderly conduct charges if they make people “uncomfortable.” However, the “speech zones” offered as an alternative comprised less than 0.0015 percent of the campus grounds, and were only open for use 18 hours per week.
Represented by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), Uzuegbunam sued the college, but two federal courts dismissed the case on the grounds that Gwinnett modified its policies in response to the lawsuit, rendering the issue moot. ADF maintained a final decision is needed to prevent the anti-speech policies from being restored.
The Supreme Court agreed last year to hear the case, and this week ruled almost unanimously in the student’s favor.
“Applying this principle here is straightforward. For purposes of this appeal, it is undisputed that Uzuegbunam experienced a completed violation of his constitutional rights when respondents enforced their speech policies against him,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in a majority opinion endorsed by seven of his colleagues (including the Court’s most liberal members). “Because ‘every violation imports damage,’ Webb, 29 F. Cas., at 509, nominal damages can redress Uzuegbunam’s injury even if he cannot or chooses not to quantify that harm in economic terms.”
Roberts, however, issued a lone dissent, arguing that “when plaintiffs like Uzuegbunam and Bradford allege neither actual damages nor the prospect of future injury, an award of nominal damages does not change their status or condition at all. Such an award instead represents a judicial determination that the plaintiffs’ interpretation of the law is correct — nothing more.”
Roberts lamented that the majority “sees no problem with turning judges into advice columnists,” claiming that rendering an opinion in the absence of a live dispute “risks a major expansion of the judicial role.”
However, ADF argued last year that such a verdict was still necessary as a deterrent against Gwinnett or other colleges repeating the constitutional violation in the future. “Government officials must be held responsible for enacting and enforcing policies that trample students’ constitutionally protected freedoms,” ADF senior counsel and vice president of appellate advocacy John Bursch said at the time. “If they get off scot free, they or others can simply do it again.”