The Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday in Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, a case challenging speech restrictions at a public Georgia college.
The central legal question before the court is whether claims for nominal, or symbolic, damages -- e.g., an award of $1 -- are made moot if a government body changes the policy under dispute after a lawsuit is filed. The case was filed by Chike Uzuegbunam and Joseph Bradford, both former students at Georgia Gwinnett College, who challenged the college’s speech code after Uzuegbunam was stopped from publicly speaking about his Christian faith and distributing religious leaflets even after he obtained advance permission and reserved a space in the college’s “speech zone.”
The college initially defended its stance but subsequently relaxed its speech restrictions before the merits of the case were decided. The district court dismissed the case, and the students' claims for nominal damages, as moot, a decision upheld by the 11th Circuit of Appeals.
The students argue in their brief to the court that without the ability to press their case to seek nominal damages, they will not be redressed for the constitutional injuries they suffered. Further, the brief states, "holding that a nominal-damages claim is insufficient to continue a case or controversy eliminates any possibility for an attorney-fee award … This would deter litigants and attorneys from pursuing constitutional claims that lack a compensatory damages component, expanding opportunities for government officials to violate constitutional rights."
“Vindicating Chike’s and Joseph’s free-speech rights is particularly crucial here because Respondents’ misconduct occurred on a public-college campus," the students' brief states.
"The 'vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital' than at public colleges," the students argued. "Yet nearly 90 percent of public colleges and universities have adopted policies that are either clearly unlawful or constitutionally suspect under the First Amendment … And claims for prospective relief are highly susceptible to mootness because students graduate, and colleges change offending policies -- at least temporarily -- when sued."
"Students also frequently suffer no compensable harm from a college’s speech-suppressing policies. Unless a nominal-damages claim remains justiciable, many students will be deprived of their only remedy."
The attorney general office for the state of Georgia argued the courts were right in dismissing the case as moot, saying that federal courts should concern themselves with "cases and controversies with real stakes for the parties, not abstract disputes."
"Since the college permanently revised the policies petitioners challenged, nominal damages would give them no more than the satisfaction of having a federal court say they are right," the state of Georgia said in its brief to the court.
Free speech groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and a number of other organizations focused on religious liberty, filed briefs supporting the students' case.