There’s no doubt that Georgia Gwinnett College violated Chike Uzuegbunam’s constitutional rights.
In 2016, Chike was handing out pamphlets in an outdoor plaza on campus and sharing the Gospel when college officials ordered him to stop. To engage in expressive activities, they said, he must reserve time in one of the two campus “speech zones.”
Chike did as he was told. He reserved time in a speech zone, and officials approved the literature he wanted to distribute. But when he began sharing his faith in the speech zone during his reserved time, college officials silenced Chike again. This time, campus police said he must stop speaking because they said someone had complained.
So let’s recap. College officials silenced Chike’s speech on a public walkway on a public college campus, silenced his speech in the campus “speech zone,” and then threatened him with disciplinary action if he did not remain silent.
Does that sound constitutional to you? I think we can all agree that the answer is “no.”
That’s why Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit on his behalf.
In response, Georgia Gwinnett argued that Chike’s speech should receive no constitutional protection. The college then later amended its policies, likely an effort to avoid accountability. Because of this and the fact that Chike had by then graduated, the case was dismissed. And while the policy changes were important, the fact remains that college officials violated Chike’s rights. But instead of acknowledging their wrongdoing, they tried to walk away from the lawsuit as if nothing had ever happened.
Unfortunately, Chike’s situation is fairly common.
It goes like this: Public colleges and universities are sued for violating their students’ rights. The college or university reluctantly and belatedly changes its policies. The lawsuit is dismissed without any recognition of the constitutional violation. End of story.
But that shouldn’t be the end of the story. Real people are harmed when their priceless constitutional rights are taken away. People like Chike. And when courts don’t step in and hold college officials accountable for trampling someone’s constitutional rights, it enables officials to violate someone else’s rights in the future.
That’s why Chike’s case is now before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Here are three stats that further demonstrate why it is so important that public colleges and universities are held responsible when they violate their students’ rights.
1. In 81 percent of the lawsuits that ADF has filed against public colleges or universities, the institution agreed to modify the unconstitutional policy only after the lawsuit was filed.
While forcing a college or university to change an unconstitutional policy is a good outcome, it begs the question: Should a college student have to have his rights violated and file a lawsuit to force his school to change its unconstitutional policy? Of course not. But if colleges and universities are never held accountable for violating the First Amendment rights of their students, then they will continue to engage in the same unconstitutional conduct.
Which brings us to our next stat.
2. ADF has sued 8 universities or university systems more than once—and 4 of those lawsuits involved the exact same policy.
Once a university changes its unconstitutional policies and the lawsuit is dismissed, it can simply reinstate the policy that got it in trouble in the first place. And as ADF’s experience demonstrates, that scenario is not a far-fetched possibility. That’s why it’s necessary that students are able to obtain a judgment and recover nominal damages—a small money award that legally recognizes a student’s rights were violated. This judgment not only holds the university liable for its unconstitutional actions, but it also establishes important precedent which can be used by future students to protect their rights.
3. Out of 60 cases that ADF has filed challenging speech zones, speech codes, or student group recognition policies, only 7 of those cases—or 11.7 percent—resulted in payment of compensatory damages.
In the vast majority of First Amendment cases, nominal damages are the only viable option for students to hold university officials responsible for a constitutional violation. But unfortunately, most students never receive a judgment holding university officials accountable when their First Amendment rights are violated. Instead, the university walks away as if nothing happened.
That’s why Chike’s case is so important. Our constitutional rights are valuable—priceless in fact. And when government officials violate those liberties, they should be held responsible.
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