Supreme Court rules for former Ga. college student in free speech case

Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville lost a U.S. Supreme Court case involving a former student. Lawyers for Chike Uzuegbunam argued his religious rights were violated several years ago when he was told he couldn’t distribute written materials expressing his Christian faith at an outdoor plaza near the campus library (Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com)
Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville lost a U.S. Supreme Court case involving a former student. Lawyers for Chike Uzuegbunam argued his religious rights were violated several years ago when he was told he couldn’t distribute written materials expressing his Christian faith at an outdoor plaza near the campus library (Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com)

Credit: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

Credit: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled against Georgia Gwinnett College in a legal dispute that raised long-standing complaints, particularly from conservatives and religious organizations, that colleges often find ways to discourage or prohibit them from sharing their viewpoints on campus.

The court ruled 8-1 that former student Chike Uzuegbunam can seek nominal damages even though the college has since made changes it believes makes it easier for any group to hold an event on its campus. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion.

The dispute began about five years ago when a campus police officer told Uzuegbunam he couldn’t distribute written materials expressing his Christian faith at an outdoor plaza near the campus library. The college said it had two other free speech expression areas on campus for such activities.

The Alliance Defending Freedom, which has won several legal disputes in recent years against public colleges in Georgia over campus speech disputes, sued in December 2016, arguing Uzuegbunam’s religious rights were violated. Another student, Joseph Bradford, who also wanted to preach on campus, later joined the case as a plaintiff.

“(I)t is undisputed that Uzuegbunam experienced a completed violation of his constitutional rights when respondents enforced their speech policies against him,” Thomas wrote. “Because ‘every violation (of a right) imports damage,’...nominal damages can redress Uzuegbunam’s injury.”

Chief Justice John Roberts was the lone dissenting vote, saying the “challenged restrictions no longer exist. And the petitioners have not alleged actual damages.”

The decision about nominal damages for Uzuegbunam will go to the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

The college released this statement Monday after the ruling: “Georgia Gwinnett College has supported and continues to support the rights of individuals to freely and openly share their thoughts and ideas on the College’s campus in accordance with the First Amendment. Georgia Gwinnett College cannot otherwise comment on pending litigation.”

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A federal court judge in 2018 dismissed the lawsuit, saying the college resolved the main issues that sparked the legal challenge by making changes, such as allowing people to speak in any outdoor area of campus. The alliance appealed the judge’s ruling.

As the case wound its way through the courts, state lawmakers almost annually proposed laws aimed at creating additional measures to make it easier for groups to speak on campus.

Several groups hailed Monday’s ruling. ADF general counselor Kristen Waggoner said nominal damages are important because “if government officials are allowed to treat our rights as worthless, they will become worthless.”

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