Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski
Description: In 2016, Georgia Gwinnett College officials stopped student Chike Uzuegbunam not once, but twice, from peacefully sharing his Christian faith with fellow students on his college campus. First, officials said he had to get advance permission to use one of two tiny speech zones that made up far less than 1% of the campus and were only open 10% of the week. Despite following these policies, Chike was again prevented from speaking. After ADF challenged the unconstitutional policies, Georgia Gwinnett argued that Chike’s speech should receive no constitutional protection, changed its policy, and claimed it should be able to avoid any penalty for violating Chike’s free speech rights. Two courts agreed. Now the Supreme Court has agreed to hear Chike’s case.
Oral arguments completed at US Supreme Court in pivotal case on govt accountability
“Our constitutional rights are invaluable and must always be protected,” said Waggoner. “When government officials treat our rights as worthless, those rights disappear. Changing unconstitutional policies is an important first step. But policy changes alone do not remedy the harm done to those whose rights were violated by the government.”
The U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of Chike Uzuegbunam and Joseph Bradford, who were stopped by Georgia Gwinnett College officials from sharing their faith publicly on campus in the summer of 2016. Officials later changed their policies, then claimed that was enough to end the students’ lawsuit, even though the officials never did anything to remedy the past free-speech violations.
Many of the justices’ questions recognized that “nominal damages” are often the best way to provide a court remedy—in many contexts. For example, Justice Elena Kagan raised musical artist Taylor Swift’s recent sexual assault case, where she asked for $1 in damages because she did not want money, only a judgment that announced the harm done to her and other women. Justice Stephen Breyer asked how the court should remedy past harm, such as a college not allowing a student to pray or to speak on campus. And Justice Brett Kavanaugh rightly stated that history, common law, Supreme Court case law, and the law in the other circuit courts of appeal all work against the college’s position. Nominal damages draw the proper line to protect constitutional rights.
The Supreme Court was also concerned with the college’s argument that a violation of a constitutional right was less valuable than even a 25-cent bus fare. The college argued that the loss of bus fare was sufficient to keep a case alive, but the past violation of free speech was not.
“Not everything of great value is monetary,” Waggoner said.
“Colleges and universities are supposed to be places where we are free to explore and debate ideas, but my college silenced me and are getting away with it,” said Uzuegbunam. “Now that they have heard my story, I am hopeful that the Supreme Court will affirm my rights and the rights of all Americans, and that courts should hold officials accountable for violating our constitutional rights.”
Groups across the ideological spectrum—including the ACLU, the Cato Institute, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and a wide range of other groups—filed legal briefs in support of this case.
- Pronunciation guide: Chike Uzuegbunam (CHEE’-kay Oo-zah-BUN’-um), Preczewski (Preh-SHEV’-skee)
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Kristen K. Waggoner serves as general counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom. In this role, Waggoner oversees the U.S. legal division, a team of 100 attorneys and staff who engage in litigation, public advocacy, and legislative support. ADF has represented the prevailing parties in multiple U.S. Supreme Court victories, including Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which she argued. Waggoner continues as lead counsel in Arlene's Flowers v. State of Washington, which the Supreme Court remanded to the Washington Supreme Court. She will argue Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski at the High Court in the 2020-21 term. She is a Peer Review Rated AV® Preeminent™ attorney in Martindale-Hubbell, who clerked for Justice Richard B. Sanders of the Washington Supreme Court after law school and served in private practice in Seattle for nearly 20 years. Waggoner is admitted to practice in multiple states, the Supreme Court, and numerous federal district and appellate courts.