A Christian college student who was barred by the college from sharing Christian flyers on campus and told he had to reserve a “free speech zone” time slot has been vindicated by the U.S. Supreme Court. On Monday, the Court ruled 8-1 in favor of Chike Uzuegbunam, who sued Gwinnett College in Georgia after the college interfered with him passing out the flyers in the summer of 2016.
The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of ADF client Chike Uzuegbunam, giving him the justice he deserves. https://t.co/Y5fJWFOUQy
— Alliance Defending Freedom (@AllianceDefends) March 9, 2021
The Court explained the events that led to the lawsuit:
In 2016, Chike Uzuegbunam talked with interested students and handed out religious literature on campus grounds. Uzuegbunam stopped after a campus police officer informed him that campus policy prohibited distributing written religious materials outside areas designated for that purpose. A college official later explained to Uzuegbunam that he could speak about his religion or distribute materials only in two designated speech areas on campus, and even then only after securing a permit. But when Uzuegbunam obtained the required permit and tried to speak in a free speech zone, a campus police officer again asked him to stop, this time saying that people had complained about his speech. Campus policy at that time prohibited using the free speech zone to say anything that “disturbs the peace and/or comfort of person(s).”
The officer told Uzuegbunam that his speech violated campus policy because it had led to complaints, and the officer threatened Uzuegbunam with disciplinary action if he continued. Uzuegbunam again complied with the order to stop speaking. Another student who shares Uzuegbunam’s faith, Joseph Bradford, decided not to speak about religion because of these events. Both Uzuegbunam and Bradford sued certain college officials charged with enforcement of the college’s speech policies, arguing that these policies violated the First Amendment.
The college ultimately decided to roll back the policies that were in place, then argued that the students now had no standing to sue for injunctive relief and nominal damages. Although the college and the attorneys for the students agreed that injunctive relief was no longer in question, the students still said that nominal damages were an issue.
Abigail Streetman of Campus Reform noted:
As Campus Reform previously covered, Uzuegbunam obeyed orders from the college and requested to reserve a time from the school, which was approved, but that he was stopped once again. This second time it took only 20 minutes for campus police to request his ID and force him to stop because of another individual’s complaints.
Justice Clarence Thomas, writing the opinion for the Court, stated, “Uzuegbunam experienced a completed violation of his constitutional rights when respondents enforced their speech policies against him. Nominal damages can redress Uzuegbunam’s injury even if he cannot or chooses not to quantify that harm in economic terms.”
Kristen Waggoner of the Alliance Defending Freedom, which argued the case for the students, stated on a press call:
The Supreme Court has rightly affirmed that government officials should be held accountable for the injuries they cause. When public officials violate constitutional rights, it causes serious harm to the victims. … nearly 90 percent of college campuses in the U.S. have unconstitutional speech policies,” and very often schools get away with it. In the past, if it was impossible to prove monetary damages, then the government could just walk away. This case will change that, putting colleges and universities at a higher risk if they choose to enact unconstitutional policies.
Chief Justice John Roberts was the only dissenting vote in the opinion.
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