In Deciding for Christian Student, the Supreme Court Strengthens Religious Freedom and More

Do courts retain the power to adjudicate a civil rights claim against the government when the alleged civil rights violation has ended and the plaintiff has suffered no monetary damages? This week, in a case that will likely have wide-ranging ramifications for religious freedom and beyond, the United States Supreme Court said yes.

The case arose in 2016 when Chike Uzuegbunam, an evangelical Christian of Nigerian descent, decided to share his faith with fellow students at Georgia Gwinnett College. When Uzuegbunam spoke with students at an outdoor plaza at the college, campus police threatened him with disciplinary action, saying that he had violated a policy against “disturbing the peace.” Uzuegbunam filed suit in federal court against several Georgia Gwinnett officials, arguing that the college’s speech policy violated the First Amendment. He asked the court to order the college to stop punishing students for sharing their faith, and for “nominal damages,” an award of one dollar for the violation of his constitutional rights.

In the early stages of litigation, the attorney general of Georgia defended the college’s actions by arguing that Uzuegbunam’s discussion with other students about his faith amounted to “fighting words.” The college quickly switched course, however, and changed its policy on student speech. The defendants asked the court to dismiss the case since the policy had been changed, and because Uzuegbunam had not alleged any monetary loss. The court agreed and dismissed the case as moot because, under the governing law at the time, a plaintiff’s request for nominal damages was not enough to allow the case to proceed, given that the defendant stopped the challenged behavior. In effect, the government could avoid judicial review of its unconstitutional actions–in other words, it could render the court proceedings and underlying legal dispute moot–simply by changing its behavior after litigation had begun. 

Uzuegbunam asked the Supreme Court to reject this rule and revive his lawsuit. As Director of the Religious Freedom Institute’s Islam and Religious Freedom (IRF) Action Team, I filed a friend of the court brief in support of his petition. Our brief read, in part:

IRF is concerned that, if this Court adopts the rule of the court below, plaintiffs who allege violations of their constitutional rights to free speech and free exercise of religion will be stopped from vindicating those rights, as those violations often cause only non-tangible—but very real—harm. IRF is also concerned, as an organization that seeks to foster the inclusion of Muslims in religious freedom work, that a rule like that adopted by the lower court will disproportionately affect members of minority faiths. 

We further argued that “there is injury from the mere fact that the government has prevented the exercise or living of one’s faith. Whether or not there is calculable financial injury to support a claim for compensatory damages, the harm is very real.”

In a resounding 8-1 decision that mirrors the position we took in our brief, the Court ruled in Uzuegbunam’s favor.  In doing so, the Court clarified that a claim for nominal damages in vindication of one’s rights will save a case from becoming moot even if the defendant changes its challenged behavior. In a key passage, the Court wrote:

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.

Because the question of mootness is so fundamental to our legal system, the Court’s decision in this case is likely to have an impact far beyond the context of religious freedom or even constitutional tort law, as Chief Justice Roberts states in his dissent, and as this article on SCOTUSBlog notes.

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