In 8-1 ruling, Supreme Court allows students’ free speech zone lawsuit to proceed

March 8, 2021

Today, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its ruling in Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, holding that former Georgia Gwinnett College student Chike Uzuegbunam’s First Amendment lawsuit against his alma mater was not rendered moot after the institution changed its free speech zone policy. The Court held that Uzuegbunam’s remaining claim for nominal damages would provide sufficient redress for his alleged harm to give him standing to continue the suit. 

The Court’s decision is welcome news for students seeking to vindicate their constitutional rights via litigation. FIRE had argued in favor of this result in a series of four amicus curiae briefs filed in support of Uzuegbunam and his fellow plaintiff, former student Joseph Bradford. After the district court dismissed the students’ case as moot, FIRE filed an amicus brief with the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, and filed again with the Eleventh Circuit in support of consideration en banc. Following the Eleventh Circuit’s disappointing decision, holding that the student-plaintiffs’ “claims for nominal damages could not save their otherwise moot constitutional challenges,” FIRE urged the Supreme Court to hear the case on appeal. After the Court agreed to hear the students’ appeal of the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling, FIRE, joined by the Cato Institute, filed an amicus brief asking the Justices to reach today’s result. 

As FIRE and Cato argued in our brief, authored by FIRE Legal Network member Kevin King and his colleagues Tarek Austin and Jack Lund at Covington & Burling, LLP, students already face substantial hurdles to vindicating their First Amendment rights in court, including their own impending graduation. Had the Court allowed public colleges to escape liability by permitting standalone claims for nominal damages to be dismissed as moot, we wrote, censored students like Uzuegbunam would be left in the lurch:

Students have few reliable options for securing judicial redress when their free-speech rights are infringed. Equitable-relief claims are frequently mooted by graduation or by revision of the challenged policy, and speech restrictions often do not inflict financial injuries that rise to the level of compensatory damages. As a result, nominal damages, which address violations that do not result in compensable financial loss, are often the only remedy available.

Under the decision below, nominal damages can no longer fulfill that critical role. If standalone nominal-damages claims are mooted just as easily as claims for equitable relief, students will be left with little incentive to challenge unlawful speech codes and other policies and actions in court. Absent precedent clarifying the law and deterring ongoing censorship, student speech rights will become increasingly devalued and colleges and universities will be emboldened to expand their speech restrictions. 

Today’s opinion recognizes the importance of nominal damages claims for students and others seeking redress for a constitutional rights violation. 

“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,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas for the majority. “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.” 

In other words, students who otherwise have standing to file a lawsuit challenging a rights violation will not be denied their day in court if the “only” relief they seek is an award of nominal damages.

“The Supreme Court got it right,” said Darpana Sheth, FIRE’s Vice President of Litigation, in response to today’s decision. “Today’s ruling protects students’ ability to vindicate their priceless First Amendment rights and hold public university officials accountable. As FIRE’s two decades of firsthand experience shows, public colleges and universities across the country routinely infringe student speech rights but can escape accountability by relying on a student’s impending graduation or otherwise mooting the case by changing the policy after a lawsuit is filed. The Court correctly recognized that these violations impose real harm, even if the silenced student cannot ‘quantify that harm in economic terms.’” 

FIRE congratulates the student-plaintiffs and their attorneys on today’s important victory. 


Schools:  Georgia Gwinnett College