Chike Uzuegbunam was a student at Georgia Gwinnett College, a public institution in Lawrenceville, Georgia, when he decided to witness about his Christian faith to fellow students on campus. He could not have anticipated that expressing his religious beliefs to his peers would trigger Gwinnett’s unyielding opposition and would make this son of Nigerian immigrants a litigant before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The facts of the case are undisputed and frankly troubling. Initially, Chike was peacefully handing out religious materials on campus when a college police officer told him to stop, given that Gwinnett’s regulations confined such presentations to designated “speech zones.” Chike learned from college administrators that he would have to apply in advance to use one of the two speech zones, relatively small areas which were only “open” a few hours a day. Chike complied with the requirements and obtained a college-issued permit. This time when he shared his religious message, he was once again shut down by campus police because they had determined that the “peace and/or comfort” of others on the campus was being disturbed by his presentation. He complied, having been threatened with disciplinary action if he continued.
Unfortunately, similar restraints on speech and religious expression have become common on American college and university campuses. As for Chike, because his evangelical faith required him to share the Gospel, and in order to protect the expression of fellow students, he filed a lawsuit with the help of ADF (the Alliance Defending Freedom) and its Center for Academic Freedom. Uzuegbunam and another Gwinnett student claimed in the suit that their First Amendment rights had been denied. Despite the fact that they had been censored and threatened, they lost at the District Court and 11th Circuit Court levels. Why?
The issue is a technical but important one. In their lawsuit they asked for three kinds of relief. First, they sued for an injunction, which is a court order requiring Gwinnett to cease from enforcing its speech-zone policy. After resisting at first, Gwinnett chose to effectively discontinue its policy. Therefore, an injunction was no longer necessary. The parties agreed that the issue of the injunction was “mooted.” It was useless to ask the courts to issue an order prohibiting a policy which Gwinnett had already largely abandoned.
Next, the lawsuit asked for “compensatory damages,” that is, payments for actual harm to the students that the complaint said would be proven. The lower court ruled, however, that this was too vague. The students were now left with a third type of claim because their complaint document contained a demand for “nominal damages”—commonly, damages of just “one dollar.” Though this may seem strange (suing for $1), it is common, especially when the primary focus of the plaintiffs was on receiving vindication for the violation of their Constitutional rights as opposed to obtaining a large monetary judgment. Unfortunately, the two lower courts now held that when only “nominal damages” were at stake, that was not enough to continue the suit. The students’ case was dismissed. They promptly filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Appearing for Uzuegbunam and his fellow student was the ADF General Counsel, Kristen Waggoner. She argued that “providing money damages of any amount,” even only a nominal amount, “is significant in that it provides … an enforceable judgment on the merits.” Waggoner warned that allowing the college to simply discontinue its wrongdoing without receiving an adverse judicial decision was not an outcome that would deter other academic institutions from engaging in the same unconstitutional conduct.
The court, with Justice Clarence Thomas writing for an 8-1 majority, agreed with the students and their counsel. Thomas’ opinion declared that bringing a suit for “nominal damages” is necessary to protect rights which were clearly violated by the state (in this case, the state of Georgia), despite the fact that these violations did not subject the injured party to actual monetary loss. All that must be shown, said Justice Thomas, is that an injury to Uzuegbunam’s rights occurred, that the injury could be traced to the unlawful policy, and finally that a remedy exists that will redress the injury—in other words, correct in some manner the wrong done. Thomas and the majority found that the award of nominal damages is just such a valid remedy because it provides the injured party with a court determination that a constitutional violation has occurred.
Thomas’ opinion relied upon English common law precedents and American law commentators like Joseph Storeyt, resulting in a strong case for nominal damages judgments. The decision recognized that allowing nominal damages suits establishes constitutional precedents that safeguard a host of fundamental rights that do not normally inflict quantifiable monetary loss on the plaintiffs. Governmental deprivation of rights of religious liberty, free speech, due process, voting rights, rights of parents to home school, freedom of assembly, compelled speech, and actions against racial discrimination, seldom produce easily proven actual damages. However, these cases do not deserve to be thrown out of court when the wrongdoer, after inflicting the harm, ceases the deprivation and tries to “tactically moot” the case.
Just how widespread the support is for allowing nominal damages cases can be seen by examining the political diversity of the organizations filing amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs in this case in support of the petitioning students. Seldom does one find organizations like the ACLU, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, and the Institute for Justice joining together in a single brief supporting the position of the Alliance Defending Freedom. Rarely does the organization Public Citizen legally agree with the Rutherford Institute or ADF. As the American Humanist Association (AHA) expressed it so well: “While the AHA and ADF stand on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum … the AHA and the ADF unite in their esteem for First Amendment liberties and their conviction that such rights are meaningless if they cannot be vindicated.”
Thanks to this decision, nominal damage suits will continue as a means of protecting citizens against the unbridled power of the state.
Editor’s note: This case was guided through the lower courts by Grove City College graduate and Senior Counsel to ADF, Travis Barham, and argued before the Supreme Court by Kristen Waggoner, who also successfully represented Colorado baker Jack Phillips before that court. Grove City College was honored to host Waggoner’s discussion of that earlier case in its April 2019 conference, “Most Sacred: Freedom of Conscience in America.”
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