The Supreme Court’s most recent decision favored a pair of Christian students who criticized their university for limiting the when, where, and how they could talk about their religion and disseminate materials on campus. Chief Justice John Roberts was the only dissenter.

SCOTUSblog shared tweets on Monday, March 8, “SCOTUS rules in favor of former student at public Georgia college who sued for ‘nominal damages’ after he was stopped from speaking. Court holds 8-1 (Roberts is sole dissenter) that nominal damages claims are enough to establish standing to sue for constitutional violation.”

The case is Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski.

Chike Uzuegbunam, a Georgia Gwinnett College student, was stopped by campus police for passing out religious materials on campus, a recorded violation of the school’s Freedom of Expression Policy, which restricted distributions and other phrases to free speech zones only with approval from the administration. 

Even after Uzuegbunam was granted permission to talk and distribute religious literature in the designated areas, campus police tried to prevent him from doing so, causing him and another student, Joseph Bradford, to file a lawsuit against the university for violating their First and 14th Amendment rights and seeking negligible damages.

After Georgia Gwinnett College revised its Freedom of Expression policies to eliminate barriers on when and where students could talk on campus and filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit as moot, the students’ efforts to sue the school were shot down by both a federal court and the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. The case was taken up by the Supreme Court after Uzuegbunam and Bradford claimed that their rights had been violated regardless of how the university changed its policy, and that they also required a decision on nominal damages.

The court’s opinion was written by Justice Clarence Thomas, who agreed with the students’ arguments.

“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. Because ‘every violation [of a right] 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,” Thomas concluded.

In his first solo dissent, Roberts wrote that the court was behaving as a “moot court” in determining this case and decision.

“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 stated.

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