Supreme Court revives Christian student’s free speech claim
The justices expand on why “nominal damages” are still damages
Former Georgia Gwinnett College student Chike Uzuegbunam took his religious freedom case all the way to the Supreme Court—just so he could sue for $1 in damages. But it isn’t about money: Winning the case would represent an admonishment of Georgia Gwinnett College for violating his rights in the first place. And it could also deter others from doing the same thing.
In the 8-1 decision announced Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Uzuegbunam had a right to sue the school for wrongly barring him from distributing Christian literature and sharing his faith in a free speech zone on campus. In 2016, campus police twice stopped Uzuegbunam even though he was in one of two designated free expression zones—spots which made up only .00015 percent of the total area of the campus. School policy at that time prohibited using the zones to say anything that “disturbs the peace and/or comfort of person(s).” The college ultimately revised its restrictive speech code and argued the change meant there was no longer any need for court action. A lower court agreed, but the Supreme Court did not.
“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 for the majority.
Chief Justice John Roberts—in his first solo dissent in 16 years on the court—disagreed, saying allowing nominal damages in cases that would otherwise be moot opens the floodgates of litigation.
Stanford Law School professor Michael McConnell, a former federal judge, echoed Roberts’ concern. “Now every lawyer worth his salt will add a claim of nominal damages” to every lawsuit, McConnell told NPR.
Roberts said he feared the decision would expand the role of the judicial branch too much.
“For those who want to know if their rights have been violated, the least dangerous branch will become the least expensive source of legal advice,” he wrote.
Despite Robert’s concern, the court has come down heavily on the side of plaintiffs who want to sue to defend their constitutional rights. Late last year, in Tanzin v. Tanvir, the court considered the case of three Muslim men placed on the FBI’s “no-fly list,” for refusing to become informants in terrorism investigations, partly because of their religious beliefs. The FBI restored their flying privileges and argued that doing so made the case moot.
In December, the Supreme Court ruled the Religious Freedom Restoration Act’s right to sue provision allows monetary damages—a similar, though not identical, extension of the right to sue when the government reverses a bad policy. Roberts joined that unanimous decision.
Alliance Defending Freedom’s Kristen Waggoner, who argued Uzuegbunam’s case before the court, said groups with diverse viewpoints, from the American Civil Liberties Union to various religious liberty advocacy organizations, supported her client.
“When government officials engage in misconduct without consequences, it leaves victims without recourse, undermines the nation’s commitment to protecting constitutional rights, and emboldens the government to engage in future violations,” she said.
Does that mean every case where a victim sues for $1 is headed to trial? A concurrence by Justice Brett Kavanaugh may offer a way to close the floodgate. Kavanaugh wrote that “a defendant should be able to accept the entry of a judgment for nominal damages against it and thereby end the litigation without a resolution of the merits.”
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