Chief Justice Roberts Issues Lone Dissenting Opinion in Campus Speech Case

March 8, 2021 Updated: March 8, 2021

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the lone dissenting opinion in a Supreme Court campus free speech case, saying that a former college student whose lawsuit reached the high court didn’t have standing.

Chike Uzuegbunam, a former student at Georgia Gwinnett College, was seeking nominal damages over an incident when the school prevented him from preaching. An 8–1 majority in the case, led by Justice Clarence Thomas, favored the student.

Roberts said the case was moot because Uzuegbunam was no longer enrolled in the college and the school had changed its rules when he complained.

“By insisting that judges be able to provide meaningful redress to litigants, Article III ensures that federal courts exercise their authority only ‘as a necessity in the determination of real, earnest and vital controversy between individuals,'” Roberts wrote. He warned that the Supreme Court’s decision would put at risk future cases in which judges will be forced to weigh in on cases that shouldn’t be tried in the courts if a plaintiff seeks nominal damages.

“The Court sees no problem with turning judges into advice columnists,” Roberts wrote of his colleagues. “In its view, the common law and (to a lesser extent) our cases require that federal courts open their doors to any plaintiff who asks for a dollar.”

Uzuegbunam and a fellow evangelical Christian student who filed a lawsuit against the school, Roberts wrote, “are no longer students at the college.”

“The challenged restrictions no longer exist. And the petitioners have not alleged actual damages,” he added. “The case is therefore moot because a federal court cannot grant Uzuegbunam and Bradford any effectual relief whatever.'”

But Thomas argued that Uzuegbunam can seek nominal damages even after he graduated and the school changed its rules.

“It is undisputed that Uzuegbunam experienced a completed violation of his constitutional rights when respondents enforced their speech policies against him,” he wrote. “Because ‘every violation [of a right] imports damage,’ nominal damages can redress Uzuegbunam’s injury even if he cannot or chooses not to quantify that harm in economic terms.”

“I agree with the Court that, as a matter of history and precedent, a plaintiff’s request for nominal damages can satisfy the redressability requirement for Article III standing and can keep an otherwise moot case alive,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in a concurring opinion.