Georgia Gwinnett College can’t simply pay $1 each in damages for violating two students’ constitutional rights to express their religious faith on campus without prior permission from administrators, according to a federal judge.
U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia Judge Eleanor Ross rejected the college’s request that it be allowed to pay the $2 to former students Joseph Bradford and Chike Uzuegbunam. Approval of the payment would have ended the case after more than five years of litigation that included a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the students’ favor.
Ross also ruled that the students can seek an arbitrated settlement of their damages claim if they choose to do so, thus clearing the way for the college being forced to make a more substantial payment in compensation for violating constitutional rights.
“For almost five years, Georgia Gwinnett College officials have been trying to dodge accountability for their illegal actions in violating Chike’s First Amendment rights, even after the U.S. Supreme Court rebuked them. The district court rightly put a stop to that,” Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) senior counsel Travis Barham said in a statement on the Ross decision that was made public Dec. 23.
The ADF, which represents Uzuegbunam, is an Arizona-based public interest law firm that specializes in First Amendment/Religious Freedom cases.
“Government officials shouldn’t get a free pass when they engage in misconduct; it leaves victims without recourse, undermines the nation’s commitment to protecting constitutional rights, and emboldens the government to engage in future violations. We are pleased that the court is allowing this lawsuit to proceed. It is long past time for Georgia Gwinnett College officials to face up to their unlawful actions,” Barham said.
The communications office of the college didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time.
The case began in 2016 when the students were told they could only express their Christian faith in one of two officially recognized “free speech zones” on campus and only during approved times after receiving prior permission from college administrators.
The free speech zones constituted only 1 percent of the Lawrenceville, Georgia, college’s campus, and the zones were only open about 10 percent of the time, according to ADF, but Uzuegbunam went through the process of applying for and receiving permission.
He was stopped a second time after a complaint was made that his comments were offensive, and Bradford, who was with Uzuegbunam and intended to share his faith as well, decided not to do so. Uzuegbunam, represented by ADF, and Bradford challenged the university’s anti-free speech policies in federal court.
Two lower federal courts held that Georgia Gwinnett need not pay any damages, but the Supreme Court in a March 8 decision ruled otherwise, saying, “for purposes of this appeal, it is undisputed that Uzuegbunam experienced a completed violation of his constitutional rights when respondents enforced their speech policies against him.
“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.” Eight of the justices joined in the opinion, with only Chief Justice John Roberts dissenting.
The high court didn’t rule on whether Bradford could claim damages on the basis of his rights being violated since he chose not to speak when accompanying Uzuegbunam on campus.
“We need to ensure that the wrong done to our clients is righted,” ADF senior counsel Tyson Langhofer, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom, said in the statement.
“The Supreme Court saw the importance of addressing these legal violations on the merits, and now so has the district court. Hopefully, this will send a signal to college and university officials nationwide that students do not lose their constitutional rights at the campus gates and that anyone who ignores these priceless freedoms can be held to account.”