On January 12, 2021, Alliance Defending Freedom represented Chike Uzuegbunam before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Chike filed a lawsuit against his school, Georgia Gwinnett College, after college officials stopped him twice from sharing his Christian faith with fellow students in a public area of campus.
College officials first told Chike that he had to get advance permission to use one of the two, tiny speech zones on campus to exercise his constitutional right to free speech. But even after Chike did all this, two campus police officers told him someone had complained, ordered him to stop speaking, and threatened him with discipline if he continued speaking.
ADF challenged the college’s speech policies in court.
Eventually, in response to the lawsuit, Georgia Gwinnett College officials adjusted their unconstitutional policies and used those changes to argue that Chike’s case should be dismissed. Two federal courts agreed. But college officials had violated Chike’s constitutional rights—twice —and done nothing to address the harm they caused. Chike lost forever the chance to get those days back and speak about his faith with his peers who were present. The government should not be able to walk away from that harm, as if nothing happened.
ADF General Counsel Kristen Waggoner argued Chike’s case before the Court. We sat down with her after oral arguments to ask her a few questions.
So, Kristen, you just finished arguing at the Supreme Court, but you’re in your office in Scottsdale. How are oral arguments different this year?
They are very different in that we participated in oral argument by telephone. We didn’t have video, and obviously we weren’t in D.C. So, we had to listen very carefully to the conference phone. In addition, instead of the justices piping in to ask questions whenever they have them, they are each allotted a specific timeframe in which to ask questions and take their turn. It’s a very different format.
How do you feel oral arguments went?
I think they went great. The Court expressed concerns about reversing the longstanding rule for which we are advocating and the 11th Circuit abandoned. We’re hopeful that the Court will rule in our favor, and not just in our favor, but in favor of all students, as there are many students who may not suffer quantifiable harm—meaning harm they can prove in dollars and cents—but who are entitled to redress from government officials. Just because someone can’t quantify their harm, or that harm doesn’t have an easy price tag, doesn’t mean the harm is not redressable under the Constitution.
What’s at stake in this case?
What’s at stake is whether victims—particularly victims in civil rights cases—have the ability to hold the government accountable, to receive a judgment in their favor, and to receive even partial redress when the government violates their rights. Nominal damages can never compare to the harm done, but it’s important that we vindicate those rights. And the courts have said that in the past. If you think about even Fourth Amendment rights, like knock and announce, where a law enforcement officer enters a private residence in violation of the Constitution, just looks around, and then they leaves. That’s a violation of the Bill of Rights. But there may be no compensatory damages in that instance, and so the courts have said when it’s a harm that is not quantifiable, we give nominal damages as the appropriate remedy.
What is it that you hope the justices will recognize as most important in this case?
I think the most important part of our case is that the rule works and it works well, and the result of changing that rule that’s been in place for hundreds of years is to box out civil rights victims—to give them no redress when their rights have been violated. And equally important, it puts all of the incentives in the government’s camp to essentially wait out the clock on litigation. It allows them to litigate a case, roll the dice, and then when the odds look bad for them, they can throw in the towel and moot the case under Article III—meaning, just make it go away. Changing unconstitutional policies benefits future students. But these officials still need to do something to remedy the past harm that they caused.
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