The Supreme Court seemed skeptical Tuesday of students who want a Georgia college to pay damages for infringing their free speech by blocking them from distributing religious pamphlets on campus.
Chike Uzuegbunam says Georgia Gwinnett College restricted his pamphlet distribution to a designated area and then stopped him altogether with claims he was “disturbing the peace.”
Another student, Joseph Bradford, decided not to proselytize on campus after witnessing Mr. Uzuegbunam’s ordeal with school officials.
They sued the college for violating their First Amendment rights, and the college settled the litigation, agreeing to change its policy.
Lawyers for the former students then brought the legal battle to the high court Tuesday, arguing they should be able to pursue nominal damages against the college — even in the amount of $1 — as a form of punishment and a declaration that the school acted unlawfully.
“There does need to be redress for the past injury,” said Kristen Waggoner, a lawyer from Alliance Defending Freedom representing the students.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett M. Kavanaugh expressed concern that holding colleges accountable for nominal damages could open the doorway to attorney fees. They suggested that the case was more focused on ensuring attorneys get paid.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer also showed skepticism about the students’ arguments. He said a ruling in their favor could open the floodgates of litigation, requiring courts time and resources.
Andrew Pinson, an attorney representing the school officials, said nominal damages were “trivial.”
“Nominal damages can’t serve as independent redress for past injuries,” he told the justices.
Free speech on college campuses has been a recurring fight in the courts.
A ruling for the plaintiffs would increase the potential of liability and legal costs for schools if they are found to have infringed students’ First Amendment rights.
An opinion in the case is expected by the end of June, when the high court usually wraps up its term.