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Gwinnett College, a public university in Georgia, had a policy that created two “free speech zones" in which students could share their beliefs and ideas after receiving a permit. One student, Chike Uzuegbunam, was able to get a permit so he could proselytize to his fellow students. This led to complaints from students not interested in hearing about his religious beliefs. Campus security ended up prohibiting him from speaking to other students despite the permit.
Uzuegbunam and a fellow student, also an Evangelical Christian, argued that this prohibition violated their First Amendment rights. However, rather than fight for their previous policy, Gwinnett College simply relented. Uzuegbunam still wanted to move on with the case, however, and sought nominal damages for this violation, even though he is no longer a student, the policy has changed, and he suffered no financial harm. The district court dismissed the case, saying that nominal damages were not enough to move the case forward.
The Supreme Court, in a notable 8-1 decision, reversed, holding that nominal damages were enough to provide the plaintiffs with standing.
Uzuegbunam suffered no financial harm and essentially won his case when Gwinnet College changed its policy. Both the district court and the Eleventh Circuit therefore held that the case was moot.
To be able to bring a lawsuit alleging a violation of constitutional rights, a plaintiff must establish that:
The question with nominal damages is whether it is a remedy that does anything. What purpose does it serve to have Gwinnet College give Uzuegbunam $1 when the college already changed its policy?
That's not the point, Justice Thomas wrote for the majority. Justice Thomas traced the roots of nominal damages under common law, pointing out that nominal damages are the default award until other damages can be established, such as statutory damages. “Despite being small, nominal damages are certainly concrete," Justice Thomas wrote, and whether it is $1 or $1 million, the damages are based on the merits of the claim, and as such satisfy standing requirements.
Justice Roberts was the only one to dissent, but did so vehemently. “If nominal damages can preserve a live controversy, then federal courts will be required to give advisory opinions whenever a plaintiff tacks on a request for a dollar," the Chief Justice warned. The point of the standing requirement is so that courts adjudicate only concrete, real disputes between individuals.
By awarding nominal damages, Justice Roberts argued, court decisions involving nominal damages will “instead represent a judicial determination that the plaintiffs' interpretation of the law is correct—nothing more." Further, Justice Roberts argued, looking to English common law courts ignored the fact that English courts derived their authority from the crown, not from a tripartite system of government in which the courts play a distinct and somewhat narrow role.
The Supreme Court's decision could have far-reaching implications for all types of lawsuits involving allegations of a constitutional violation. For example, the Supreme Court recently dismissed a case involving the Second Amendment as moot, since New York changed its gun regulation after being challenged in federal court. If the plaintiffs in that case sought nominal damages, would the Supreme Court have heard the case?
We'll have to wait and see if Justice Roberts' prediction that federal courts will begin to see more cases involving nominal damages comes true.
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