The Supreme Court recently issued a major ruling in a dispute over free speech on the grounds of a public college. By a vote of 8-1, with Chief Justice Roberts as the lone dissenter, the Court held that a Georgia student’s claims of violations of his First Amendment rights against college officials were not mooted by the school’s decision to abandon the speech restrictions at issue. Specifically, the Court found that the student had standing to proceed with his First Amendment lawsuit even though the student was only seeking nominal damages in the suit. The case had long been on the radar of First Amendment advocates and resulted in a unique confluence of support for the plaintiffs from both ends of the ideological spectrum (and many in between) with numerous liberal and conservative groups submitting a raft of amicus curiae urging the Court to rule in favor of the plaintiffs.
The case, Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, was brought by two students at Georgia Gwinnett College, a public college in Georgia located in the Atlanta suburb of Lawrenceville. The college had a campus policy that restricted public speaking and distribution of written materials to only two designated “free speech expression areas” and required a permit to do so. According to the lawsuit, these speech zones occupied less than 0.0015% of the campus, and are open only 18 hours a week.
One of the plaintiffs, Chike Uzuegbunam, is an evangelical Christian who was handing out religious literature on the campus when a campus police officer told him that he could only distribute literature by reserving one of the two designated free speech areas. The complaint alleges that Uzuegbunam followed the officer’s instructions and obtained a permit, but, within a few minutes of starting to hand out literature and discuss his religious beliefs, another officer told Uzuegbunam that he must stop as his speech was disturbing others and therefore violated the college’s “disorderly conduct” policy which prohibited any speech, even in the free speech zones, that “disturbed the peace and/or comfort of person(s).” Continue reading ›