In 2016, Chike Uzuegbunam (below) began handing out Christian literature on the campus of Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville. The school made him stop, however, because he had been outside a very limited “free speech zone.”
So he tried again inside the free speech zone. But that didn’t work, either, since the school said someone had complained and accused him of “disorderly conduct.” (Whether that’s true or not is besides the point.) Another Christian student, Joseph Bradford, wanted to proselytize as well, but after seeing how Uzuegbunam was treated, he chose not to.
Both students later sued the school with the help of the right-wing group Alliance Defending Freedom.
The school later changed its policies in a way that would’ve allowed both students to preach on campus. Because of that, lower courts said there was no violation of the students’ First Amendment rights. In other words, because the school fixed the problem after the fact, and because they didn’t have to pay any financial penalties to the students, they were absolved from admitting any guilt.
So what happens if another student at another school encounters the same problem? As it stands, they would have to fight the same legal battle all over again. Unless the courts step in and say, “The school was wrong,” there’s no legal remedy right now.
That’s why ADF asked the Supreme Court to weigh in on the matter; that wish was granted over the summer. Oral arguments will take place later this term.
ADF wants a clear-cut answer as to whether the school violated the students’ First Amendment rights. If the Supreme Court overturns the earlier decisions, it’ll be easier for other students to claim their rights are being violated. Without that definitive ruling, others who have their First Amendment rights violated may be deprived of a straightforward solution.
What may be surprising is that ADF now has the support from a variety of groups including the ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the American Humanist Association. It’s not often this coalition is on the same side of anything, but the right to free speech applies even to people you disagree with.
… Religion Clause violations rarely produce actual damages and often stem from easily mootable laws. Taking away from citizens the only remedy available in many such cases jeopardizes the rule of law itself.
Now is not the time to embolden the government to experiment on our liberties. Now is not the time to tell citizens their First Amendment rights do not matter. Now is the time to instill confidence in an anxious America and celebrate a constitutional heritage strong enough to unite the likes of the AHA and ADF.
The ACLU and AU, which filed a joint amicus brief with other groups, put it more bluntly:
Plaintiffs’ ability to plead nominal damages to account for the harms associated with past constitutional violations acknowledges that plaintiffs have suffered real injuries from alleged violations of fundamental rights, regardless of whether their injuries readily translate into dollar amounts. Nominal damages thus play a key role in vindicating rights and holding governments accountable for unconstitutional policies.
In other words, this isn’t about money. This is about making clear that the school crossed the line so that others who do what Gwinnett did can also be held accountable for it.
It’s not often you see all these groups working together. All the more reason for the Supreme Court, whatever its makeup, to rule in their favor.
(Image via ADF. Thanks to Brian for the link)