The United States Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of two Christian students who sued their college for limiting free speech. Georgia Gwinnett College students were involved in the incident, which happened in 2016.
Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski is a case involving two former students of Georgia Gwinnett College. They attempted to practice their religious liberty and openly express their religion with other students by giving out religious literature on campus while enrolled there. Then one of the students, Chike Uzuegbunam, was stopped by the campus police. They warned him that he could only speak in one of the college’s two “speech zones.” These speech zones were small in size and only accessible for a few hours per week. Anyone interested in attending will need to make a reservation in advance.
Uzuegbunam was stopped again by campus police after obtaining the required permit and beginning to talk about Christianity. They said that his speech made many students uncomfortable and gained complaints this time. If Uzuegbunam persisted, the officers threatened him with disciplinary action. Uzuegbunam remained silent for fear of the repercussions.
When another student, Joseph Bradford, witnessed what had happened to Uzuegbunam, he chose not to discuss his religion. They sued the college as a collective for violating their First Amendment rights. The college defended its policy initially, claiming that Uzuegbunam’s religious expression “rose to the level of fighting words.”
The Supreme Court’s judgment
The college rapidly abandoned its claim and revoked its restrictive policies. Lower courts dismissed their argument as contentious before it entered the Supreme Court, which protected the two Christian students.
“For purposes of this appeal, it is undisputed that Uzuegbunam experienced a complete violation of his constitutional rights when respondents enforced their speech policies against him. … Because ‘every violation [of a right] imports damage,’ … nominal damages can redress Uzuegbunam’s injury even if he cannot or chooses not to quantify that harm in economic terms,’” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the majority opinion.
The conservative legal organization, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), representing the students, applauded the court decision, claiming it “weighed in on the side of justice.” ADF general counsel, Kristen Waggoner, confirmed that elected officials should not be granted a pass when they violate civil rights on campus or anywhere.
When officials are not held accountable for their behavior, it not only leaves victims without redress but also undermines America’s commitment to constitutional rights protection.
“We believe this is a significant victory because we see time and time again government officials will censor speech unconstitutionally. … Students will muster the courage to stand and say, ‘This is a violation of my constitutional rights,’ … college officials will quickly change the policy and walk away.”
“The irony, in this case, is that the Georgia officials received a letter years earlier from ADF warning them that their policy was unconstitutional, and they did nothing until Chike (Uzuegbunam) sued them, and that is consistent with what we see across the country,” Waggoner told reporters.
Other universities will be forced to reconsider imposing unconstitutional free speech restrictions on campus due to the Supreme Court decision. The nine judges’ near-unanimous decision, representing a range of philosophies, could help the court’s potential interpretations of constitutional rights.