Free Speech on College Campuses: Protecting a Fundamental Aspect of the University

On March 8, 2021, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in favor of a college student contending that his First Amendment rights were violated by the school’s policies. By an 8-1 decision in Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, both liberal and conservative justices of the Supreme Court defended a pillar of both the modern university and the United States: the right to speak freely, regardless of whether it is convenient to others. 

In 2016, Chike Uzuegbunam, an Evangelical Christian at Georgia Gwinnett College, in an attempt to share his faith with his classmates, stood outside of the campus library and handed out religious literature to students who expressed interest. Shortly after, campus police approached Uzuegbunam and notified him that he was in violation of the college’s “Freedom of Expression Policy.” This regulation held that any student who sought to engage in expressive activities must reserve a spot in one of the two designated free speech areas on campus, which together constitute “.00015 percent of campus.” After Uzuegbunam properly secured a permit and gained access to a free speech zone, a campus police officer approached him again and directed him to stop, citing complaints from other students about his speech disturbing “the peace and/or comfort” of his classmates.

Uzuegbunam and Joseph Bradford–a fellow Evangelical Christian at Georgia Gwinnett College who elected not to speak due to the treatment Uzuegbunam received–sued their college in separate lawsuits, seeking injunctive relief and nominal damages. Injunctive relief refers to “a remedy which restrains a party from doing certain acts,” essentially promising that a similar injustice will not occur as a result of a policy. In response, Georgia Gwinnett College rescinded the disputed policy, rendering the call for injunctive relief moot. The petitioners’ call for nominal damages proved more intricate, as nominal damages tend to be a largely symbolic reward for a plaintiff unentitled to compensatory damages, often coming in the form of one dollar. In this regard, the students felt as though their claim for nominal damages had not been satisfied. 

Justice Clarence Thomas–joined by Justices Stephen Bryer, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett–focused his majority opinion on whether or not Uzuegbunam was still entitled to receive nominal damages. To the court, it was clear that Uzuegbunam had established that he was (1) wronged (2) as a result of the school’s conduct, but the question lied in whether the nominal damages he sought posed (3) “a remedy that is likely to redress that injury.” In analysis of Article III of the Constitution, Justice Thomas turned to English and American legal precedent to answer the third criterion. Justice Thomas offers an opinion from Justice Joseph Story from 1838, in which Justice Story contends that legal redress should extend no farther than whether or not a right was violated. Thus, because Uzuegbunam undoubtedly experienced a “completed violation of his constitutional rights,” he is entitled to seek legal redress in whichever manner he wishes, including collecting nominal damages.  

For the first time since joining the bench in 2005, Chief Justice John Roberts–long heralded as a consensus maker on the bench–was the lone dissenter, asserting that the case in question was moot. The Chief Justice stressed that neither Uzuegbunam nor Bradford are current students at Georgia Gwinnett College and the disputed policy is no longer in place. Furthermore, since neither student sought compensatory damages to any “alleged actual damages,” any granting of nominal damages would simply serve as confirmation that the plaintiff won a legal argument. The Chief Justice is concerned that requests for nominal damages amounting to a single dollar will affect the standing of other cases, a sentiment Justice Kavanaugh echoed in his concurring opinion. 

With this ruling, the Supreme Court signals their willingness to defend the First Amendment rights of college students and ensure their avenues for legal redress, supporting the notion that free speech is not a partisan matter. While nowadays construed as an issue for conservative students, history would suggest that it was in fact liberal students that championed the significance of free speech on college campuses, specifically in the campus protests of the 1960’s and 1970’s. This is not to say that colleges do not have an obligation to protect from speech that is deliberately hateful, but rather that the consideration of a student’s comfort is directly contradictory to free speech, which, according to Uzuegbunam, relies upon telling “people things they do not want to hear.” The university experience prides itself upon the complete pursuit of truth, yet, in order for this to happen, it is essential that all institutions of higher education acknowledge the formidable obstacle free speech zones pose to the intellectual development of students.

Andrew Touma is a freshman from Fort Gratiot, Michigan and is planning on majoring in Public Policy Studies.

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