The Supreme Court’s 8–1 decision on March 8 to require accountability for public officials violating individuals’ constitutional rights has huge significance beyond the college campus where the case originated, according to one of the plaintiff’s attorneys.
With only Chief Justice John Roberts dissenting, the high court held in a case brought by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) on behalf of former Georgia Gwinnett College student Chike Uzuegbunam that school officials violated his First Amendment rights by barring him from sharing about his Christian faith in a free speech zone on the campus.
“Campus policy at that time prohibited using the free speech zone to say anything that ‘disturbs the peace and/or comfort of person(s).’” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority in describing the policy challenged in the case. The case is known as “Uzuegbunam et. al. v. Precczewski et. al.”
When officials at the school backed off the policy, they then argued in federal court that Uzuegbunam no longer had standing to claim damages because his rights were no longer being violated.
But the court disagreed, saying: “Uzuegbunam experienced a completed violation of his constitutional rights when respondents enforced their speech policies against him. Nominal damages can redress Uzuegbunam’s injury even if he cannot or chooses not to quantify that harm in economic terms.”
The court further noted that “an award of nominal damages constitutes relief on the merits.”
In other words, if a constitutional violation is documented, the offending official or institution must be held accountable, even if there is no demonstration of measurable injury deserving of more than nominal damages.
The accountability requirement also goes beyond colleges violating students’ free speech rights, according to ADF Vice President Kristen Waggoner.
“So, this ensures that it’s not just discriminatory student speech policies, it’s discriminatory stop-and-frisk, denial of kosher meals in prison, you can easily think of a variety of constitutional violations that would benefit from this,” Waggoner told reporters on March 8, in response to a question from The Epoch Times during a telephone news conference.
“It sure ought to. Alliance Defending Freedom has had over 400 victories in this space, in terms of public universities. Nobody litigates more of these cases than we do,” said Waggoner, who has argued multiple cases filed by ADF before the Supreme Court.
“We believe this is a significant victory because we see time and time again where government officials will censor speech unconstitutionally, students will muster the courage to stand and say, ‘This is a violation of my constitutional rights,’ and then college officials will quickly change the policy and walk away.
“The irony in this case is that the Georgia officials received a letter years’ earlier from ADF warning them that their policy was unconstitutional, and they did nothing until Chike sued them, and that is consistent with what we see across the country.”
Waggoner’s contention that the case has big implications for situations involving alleged violations of constitutional rights in other arenas drew agreement from multiple legal experts interviewed on March 9 by The Epoch Times.
Zack Smith, senior fellow in the Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation, said “this case does have wide-ranging implications” because it will severely limit a tactic that violators have long used to avoid facing a full court review of the merits or demerits of their actions.
Smith said “the problem in these cases, where there is an alleged violation of a constitutional right, is exactly what happened in this case. A governmental entity will change their policy and try to boot out the case, get it dismissed.
“You see this in the First Amendment context like here, you could see it in the stop-and-frisk context, or really any context where there is a policy that is alleged to violate someone’s constitutional rights, whether that violation is based on the Fourth Amendment, the Eighth Amendment, the First Amendment or whatever.
“Any time a policy is violating or alleged to violate someone’s constitutional rights, this decision would essentially allow the case to move forward even if the governmental entity changes their policy and tries to get it dismissed.”
Similarly, Will Creeley, legal director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which filed an amicus curiae brief in the case, said Waggoner “is 100 percent correct, that is a prediction I would confidently share as well.”
“The opinion deals with the nominal damages that are possible in cases involving violations of rights that aren’t easy to put a price tag on, and that’s not just expressive rights, but it can also be civil rights, privacy rights, a wide variety of possible constitutional infringements that defy quantification,” Creeley said.
Ilya Shapiro, director of the Cato Institute’s Robert A. Levy Center for Constitutional Studies, agreed, saying, “Justice Thomas was right for the near-unanimous court to hold that government officials can’t escape liability for violations of constitutional rights just by changing their policies, and that citizens can get their day in court even if they only ask for nominal damages.”
Shapiro noted that the decision was the “first-ever solo dissent” by Roberts in his more than 15 years on the bench, which “continues his crusade against an engaged judiciary that would make it easier for civil rights plaintiffs to hold state actors to account.”
Cato also filed an amicus curiae brief in the case.
Contact Mark Tapscott at Mark.Tapscott@epochtimes.nyc