High Court to Weigh Campus Speech Rights

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• January 12, 2021 4:10 pm


The Supreme Court is hearing a case that pits a religious college graduate against a public university that allegedly threatened him with disciplinary action for distributing Christian material on campus.

Chike Uzuegbunam, an evangelical Christian who has since graduated from Georgia Gwinnett College, is accusing his alma mater of violating his free-speech rights in a series of 2016 incidents. Campus police allegedly harassed Uzuegbunam multiple times with threats of disciplinary action, even though he agreed to keep his activity in a campus free-speech zone.

The case calls into question the importance of protecting students' First Amendment rights from public institutions. Uzuegbunam is requesting a small payment in damages to signify his mistreatment by the university. Kristen K. Waggoner, Uzuegbunam's attorney, urged the Court to rule in his favor despite the fact that the school has changed its policy.

"These constitutional rights are invaluable, even when they don't result in quantifiable harm. Yet the officials urge you to treat them as worthless. … What is significant is that the past injury is afforded some sort of redress," Waggoner said in oral arguments on Tuesday.

Chief Justice John Roberts pushed back, saying that the student's attorneys were simply looking for a moral victory. "The only redress you're asking for is a declaration that you're right," Roberts said.

In 2016, the student was distributing religious literature on campus when university police officers approached him and told him he was violating the school's freedom of expression policy because he was not in a designated "free speech" zone. The student then reserved a zone and continued his distribution before he was told once again that he was in violation of university policy and was being disruptive.

Attorneys for the college argued that the school's rules have already been changed and that the student's lawsuit serves no purpose. Lower courts have agreed with the argument, deciding the case would have no practical effect.

Some justices signaled their broad sympathy for the student's argument. Justice Elena Kagan pointed to the example of singer Taylor Swift, who sued a DJ for groping her. The pop star only asked for $1 in damages.

"That's all she wanted, she wanted to prove a point," Kagan said.

Religious law firms said that legal victories are needed to clarify First Amendment policies and prevent the suppression of free speech.

"Nominal damages play an important role in vindicating the rights of religious liberty plaintiffs, especially inmates, students, and houses of worship," Becket Law, a religious law firm, wrote in an amicus brief.

The case is No. 19-968, Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski.

Published under: Religious Liberty, Supreme Court