A Christian student seeking symbolic damages against a Georgia college that had restricted the area where he could try to evangelize saw his case go before the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday.
“Colleges and universities are supposed to be places where we are free to explore and debate ideas, but my college silenced me and are getting away with it,” Chike Uzuegbunam said Jan. 12. “Now that they have heard my story, I am hopeful that the Supreme Court will affirm my rights and the rights of all Americans, and that courts should hold officials accountable for violating our constitutional rights.”
Kristen Waggoner, Alliance Defending Freedom General Counsel, represented Uzuegbunam in U.S. Supreme Court arguments Jan. 12. The case is known as Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski.
“Our constitutional rights are invaluable and must always be protected,” she said in a statement. “When government officials treat our rights as worthless, those rights disappear. Changing unconstitutional policies is an important first step. But policy changes alone do not remedy the harm done to those whose rights were violated by the government.”
Uzuegbunam, raised in New York City by his Nigerian-born parents, converted to Christianity in 2013, the same year he began to attend Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, Ga.
In summer 2016, he tried to distribute Christian pamphlets and talk to students outside the school library. A security guard told him he had to make a reservation for a place in one of two small spaces on campus designated as free speech zones. These spaces were only open 10 percent of the week and made up under 1 percent of the campus.
After Uzuegbunam made the reservation, he was told that there were complaints and he had to stop. Campus police told him his reservation only included handing out materials and having private conversation, and not speaking loudly, Deseret News reports.
“I went along with the policy, even though the zones made up 0.0015 percent of campus — the equivalent of a piece of paper on a football field — and were open only about 10 percent of the week,” Uzuegbunam said in a Jan. 11 opinion essay in the Washington Post.
“The administrators of public universities, and government officials generally, shouldn’t get a pass when they violate someone’s constitutional rights. No matter a person’s religious or political beliefs, in the land of the free, liberty belongs to every American,” Uzuegbunam said.
When college officials faced a legal challenge from Uzuegbunam and Joseph Bradford, another student who wanted to preach on campus, they changed their policy. As of 2017, students may demonstrate or distribute literature anywhere and anytime on campus without a permit, unless the group involved expects 30 or more participants.
The officials have said this change addressed the legal challenge. A lower court and an appeals court agreed.
However, Uzuegbunam and his attorneys said that the previous violation of his free speech deserved remedy.
In his Washington Post essay, Uzuegbunam suggested that officials who impinge on freedom should learn, “they can’t simply change the rules when someone protests and are then free to return to their unconstitutional ways whenever they like.”
He is seeking symbolic damages of $1.
During the arguments, held online due to the coronavirus epidemic, Chief Justice John Roberts suggested to Waggoner that it might be problematic that “the only redress you’re asking for is a declaration that you’re right.”
According to the Associated Press, Justice Elena Kagan wondered whether the case was bringing a lawsuit for “pure vindication alone.” At the same time, she noted the $1 symbolic award to Taylor Swift for sexual assault, who had successfully counter sued a former radio DJ after he filed a lawsuit claiming she falsely accused him of groping her and lost his job.
“Why isn’t that the same as this?” she asked. “The petitioner here says he was harmed. He wasn’t able to speak when he should have been able to speak...He’s just asking for $1 to redress that harm.”
Justice Brett Kavanaugh thought there were “a number of things” working against the defense put forward by Georgia Solicitor General Andrew Pinson, who represented college officials.
He also voiced skepticism, saying, “I’m trying to, again, figure out what’s really at stake here. This is not about the $1, I wouldn’t think.” He said it was his “strong suspicion that attorneys fees is what’s driving all this on both sides.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was among the many groups to file an amicus brief in the case. The brief was co-signed with the National Association of Evangelicals and the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
The brief defended the use of “nominal damages” in response to “past wrongs without quantifiable economic harm” and especially useful in cases where First Amendment free speech and free exercise of religion rights are violated.
“Because a defendant’s conduct may grievously transgress these first freedoms without resulting in any measurable economic harm, nominal damages are often the only remedy available to vindicate those rights,” said the brief. Nominal damages help ensure judicial review when rights are violated, it added.
Other amicus briefs came from a wide variety of political and religious groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Cato Institute, the Christian Legal Society, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty.