All the members of America’s highest court – save one – say it’s important to protect the principle of free speech, even when the offending policy no longer exists.
In a near-unanimous ruling (8-1), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that government officials must be held accountable when they violate constitutionally protected freedoms. The ruling came in a case involving two former students – Chike Uzuegbunam and Joseph Bradford – who were stopped by Georgia Gwinnett College officials from sharing their faith publicly on campus in the summer of 2016.
One News Now related the following comments by Uzuegbunam in an earlier story:
“First, they said I could only speak in the two tiny speech zones, and only then at prescribed times and with a reservation. Later, when I was standing in the speech zone I had reserved, I was told I could not speak at all, and all I wanted to do was share the good news of Jesus Christ and how He offers us eternal life freely.”
Kristen Waggoner is general counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, the firm representing Uzuegbunam and Bradford. ADF argued that the college officials clearly violated the students’ constitutional rights.
“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,” says Waggoner.
When ADF challenged the school’s speech policies, Georgia Gwinnett argued the students’ speech should receive no constitutional protection, changed its policies, then claimed it should be able to avoid any penalty for violating Uzuegbunam’s free-speech rights.
“Officials within our public institutions shouldn’t get a free pass for violating constitutional rights on campus or anywhere else,” says Waggoner. “When such officials engage in misconduct but face no consequences, it leaves victims without recourse, undermines the nation’s commitment to protecting constitutional rights, and emboldens the government to engage in future violations.”
In an earlier interview, Waggoner stated Uzuegbunam was seeking “nominal damages.” According to ADF, nominal damages “redress a constitutional injury when a plaintiff is unable or does not want to put a dollar figure on a lost right,” and ensures that individuals’ rights are “scrupulously observed.”
Waggoner adds that the university students were supported by groups representing diverse ideological viewpoints “because the threat to our constitutionally protected freedoms doesn’t stop with free speech rights or a college campus.”
Over two dozen groups, including the American Center for Law and Justice, the Christian Legal Society, the American Humanist Association, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), filed amicus briefs supporting Uzuegbunam and Bradford.
The sole dissenter in today’s ruling was Chief Justice John Roberts, arguing the case is moot because the two are no longer students at the college, the challenged restrictions no longer exist, and the petitioners haven’t alleged actual damages.
The case is Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski. The high court heard arguments on January 12, 2021.