In an 8-1 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled a speech code enforced by a Georgia state college violated the First Amendment. and authorized students claiming to have been harmed by the policy to file suit, even if just for nominal damages. The decision, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, was handed down on March 8.
Reversing decisions by the 11th Circuit federal appeals court and the trial court, the opinion held the speech policy of Gwinnett College had harmed Chike Uzuegbunam, a former student there, who had talked with other students and distributed literature while sharing his evangelical Christian faith with others on campus. The federal appeals court had earlier ruled that Uzuegbunam lacked standing to sue the college over its policy that severely restricted his speech.
School officials had twice stopped Uzuegbunam’s proselytizing efforts, insisting they could only be carried out in one of the two campus “free speech” zones, which together comprised far less than 1% of the campus area; even after obtaining a permit required to use a “free speech” zone, Uzuegbunam’s attempts were blocked by campus police, who told him others had complained of his actions and threatened disciplinary action if he persisted. Eventually police charged Uzuegbunam with violating a campus speech code which prohibited offensive speech.
Aided by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a civil liberties group, Uzuegbunam and another would-be-proselytizer brought a federal §1983 lawsuit against college officials enforcing the college’s speech policies, claiming infringement of their First Amendment free-speech rights. The lawsuit sought injunctive relief and nominal damages. School officials ultimately chose to discontinue the speech policy, and then sought to dismiss the case, claiming students no longer had standing to sue.
Both sides agreed the speech policy’s revocation mooted the students’ request for injunctive relief; the sole remaining dispute was whether the students had standing to maintain the suit based on their claim for nominal damages. “Friend of court” briefs backing the challenge to the speech code came from the American Civil Liberties Union, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the American Humanist Association, and the Frederick Douglass Foundation.
Ex-Student Wins Right to Sue School for Violation of Free Speech Rights
Eight Justices upheld the students’ right to sue the school for violating his First Amendment free-speech rights, and further agreed that since their constitutional rights had been violated, they could sue for at least nominal damages. The lone dissenter, Chief Justice John Roberts, sharply criticized the majority opinion for not dismissing the case as moot (because Uzuegbunam and his colleague were no longer students and the college had eliminated the speech code.)
The Chief Justice wrote the decision “risks a major expansion of the judicial role,” since “until now… federal courts can review the legality of policies and actions only as a necessary incident to resolving real disputes.” He also argued that if asking for nominal damages were enough to preserve a live controversy, as required by the constitutional case-or-controversy threshold requirement of standing, federal courts “will be required to give advisory opinions whenever a plaintiff tacks on a request for a dollar.” That would be, in the Chief Justice’s words, “turning judges into advice columnists.”
About the Author
Scott J. Limmer is a New York criminal attorney practicing primarily in Nassau, Suffolk, and Queens counties. He also represents students nationwide when they are charged with violations of their school’s code of conduct.