SCOTUS Rules Pupils Have Standing to Bring Free Speech Suit

As stated by the Court, a petition for nominal compensation satisfies the redressability element necessary for Article III position where a plaintiff’s claim is based on a completed breach of a legal right.

Facts of this Case

The suit had been brough by former pupils at Georgia Gwinnett College who wished to exercise their own faith by sharing their beliefs on campus while enrolled there. In 2016, Chike Uzuegbunam talked with curious students and passed out religious literature on campus grounds. Uzuegbunam ceased following a campus police officer advised him that campus coverage banned distributing written religious materials outside places designated for this purpose. A college official later explained to Uzuegbunam that he could talk about his faith or distribute materials only in two specified address places on campus, and even then only after securing a permit. But when Uzuegbunam got the necessary permit and tried to talk to a free speech zone, a campus police officer asked him to quit, this time saying that individuals had complained about his address.

Campus policy at that time banned employing the free speech zone to state anything which”disturbs the calmness or relaxation of person(s).” The officer told Uzuegbunam that his address violated campus policy since it had contributed to complaints, along with also the officer endangered Uzuegbunam with disciplinary action if he continued. Uzuegbunam again complied with the order to quit speaking.

Another student who shares Uzuegbunam’s faith, Joseph Bradford, decided to not talk about faith because of these events. The two Uzuegbunam and Bradford resisted particular college officials charged with enforcement of the college’s speech policies, arguing that these coverages violated the First Amendment. The pupils sought injunctive relief and nominal damages. The faculty officials finally decided to discontinue the contested policies instead of to protect them, and they sought dismissal on the ground that the coverage shift left the pupils without having to sue. The parties agreed that the policy shift rendered the pupils’ petition for injunctive relief moot, but contested whether the pupils had standing to maintain the suit according to their staying claim for nominal compensation. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that although a petition for nominal compensation can sometimes save a case from mootness, like where a person pleads but fails to establish an amount of compensatory damages, the pupils’ request nominal damages could not by itself establish status.

Supreme Court’s Decision

“This case asks if an award of nominal compensation by itself can redress a past injury. We hold that it could,” Justice Clarence wrote on behalf of the majority.

As Justice Thomas explained, to establish Article III standing, the Constitution requires a plaintiff to recognize the injury in fact that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct and to look for a remedy likely to redress this injury. To determine whether nominal compensation could remedy a previous accident, the Court appeared to law, noting that the prevailing rule at common law was that a party whose rights have been invaded can always recover nominal damages without furnishing proof of actual damage. “Because nominal damages were available at common law in analogous circumstances, we conclude that a petition for nominal compensation satisfies the redressability element of status where a plaintiff’s claim is based on a completed breach of a legal ,” Justice Thomas wrote.

It further concluded that another rule would lead to”that the oddity of all privileging small-dollar financial rights over important, but not easily quantifiable, but nonpecuniary rights.”

In reaching its decision, the Court rejected the argument which compensatory damages is a prerequisite to an award of nominal damages. Since Justice Thomas explained,”[n]ominal obligations are not a consolation prize for the plaintiff who pleads, but fails to establish compensatory damages. They are the compensation awarded by default until the plaintiff determines entitlement to some other kind of compensation, for example compensatory or statutory damages.”
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