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Former GA students urge Supreme Court to hold govt officials accountable when they violate rights

ADF attorneys file opening brief with high court on behalf of two Georgia Gwinnett College graduates

Tuesday, Sep 22, 2020

WASHINGTON – Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys filed their opening merits brief Tuesday with the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of two former college students seeking to vindicate their constitutionally protected freedoms. ADF attorneys filed the lawsuit, Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, to challenge Georgia Gwinnett College’s policies restricting student expression. After being sued, the college argued that the First Amendment did not protect the students’ speech peacefully sharing their religious beliefs. The college later amended its speech policies but did nothing to rectify its mistreatment of the students, and lower courts declined to do anything about it.

“Courts should hold government officials accountable when they violate First Amendment freedoms. The government is supposed to protect those freedoms, not take them away,” said ADF General Counsel Kristen Waggoner, who will argue the case before the Supreme Court. “When government officials trample constitutional rights but face no consequences for that abuse, it tells the victim that his rights don’t matter and emboldens the government to engage in future violations. This legal principle doesn’t just apply to a student’s right to free speech; it applies to the constitutional rights of all Americans.”

In 2016, college officials stopped student Chike Uzuegbunam not once, but twice, from sharing his Christian faith with fellow students in a public area of the college’s Lawrenceville, Georgia campus. First, officials required Uzuegbunam had to get advance permission to use one of two, tiny speech zones that made up less than 1% of the campus—the equivalent of a piece of paper on a football field—zones that were only open 10% of the week. When Uzuegbunam did what they asked, reserved time, and began sharing his faith in the zone, two police officers ordered him to stop because they allegedly had received a complaint. Under the college’s policy, it is considered “disorderly conduct” if someone says that speech makes them uncomfortable, a classic heckler’s veto. The officers said if Uzuegbunam continued to share his faith, he would face discipline. Uzuegbunam stopped speaking, and another student did not speak at all after seeing how officials treated Uzuegbunam.

Two federal courts, including the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, declined to address whether the college violated the students’ First Amendment rights. They said that constitutional violations are not worth addressing after officials change their policies unless the violations caused a financial injury. Most federal courts would have still issued a ruling. A final judicial decision is necessary to prevent future misconduct, ensure that government officials are held accountable for actual legal violations, and vindicate priceless freedoms.

“[C]onstitutional rights are worth protecting even when the injury cannot be quantified into dollars and cents,” the ADF brief filed with the Supreme Court explains. “[T]he lower courts told the students that the violation of their constitutional rights did not matter. . . . Only this Court can right that wrong.”

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take the case on July 9. The 11th Circuit is the only federal appellate court that leaves government officials—in this case, those at a public college—unaccountable for violating citizens’ constitutionally protected freedoms when those officials later change their policies during litigation.
  • Pronunciation guide: Chike Uzuegbunam (CHEE’-kay Oo-zah-BUN’-um), Preczewski (Preh-SHEV’-skee)
The ADF Center for Academic Freedom is dedicated to ensuring freedom of speech and association for students and faculty so that everyone can freely participate in the marketplace of ideas without fear of government censorship.
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