Holding Officials Accountable for Violating Constitutional Rights

Holding Officials Accountable for Violating Constitutional Rights

May 10, 2021 Daniel Turner

In a victory for free speech, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of student Chike Uzuegbunam this term, holding in Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski that government officials must be held accountable when they violate constitutionally protected freedoms.

In 2016, when Uzuegbunam was a student at Georgia Gwinnett College, he talked with interested students and handed out religious literature on campus grounds. He was stopped by campus police officers and told that he was not allowed to distribute religious materials unless he reserved and used one of two tiny “speech zones” on campus. These zones made up less than 1% of the campus and were only open 10% of the week. Even after Uzuegbunam did so, campus officials again ordered him to stop speaking on the college’s Lawrenceville, Georgia, campus.

When Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed suit on Uzuegbunam’s behalf, the college changed its policy and subsequently claimed it should be able to avoid penalty for violating Uzuegbunam’s free speech rights. Two lower courts, a federal district court in Georgia and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit agreed with Georgia Gwinnett College’s argument, holding that the case was moot because the college had changed its policies, so there was not a quantifiable, economic injury. 

ADF appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that a final judicial decision was needed to remedy past harm, prevent future misconduct and vindicate constitutional freedoms.

Groups from a wide variety of ideological viewpoints rallied behind the cause to ensure that government officials are held responsible for their actions and institutions cannot quietly add and remove unconstitutional policies without repercussions. The American Civil Liberties Union, joined by Americans for Prosperity Foundation, the Institute for Justice, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, filed an amicus brief explaining why it supported Uzuegbunam’s right to claim nominal damages, which would legally recognize that his rights had been violated. The American Humanist Foundation also filed in support of Uzuegbunam. 

The Supreme Court heard the case and ruled in favor of Chike Uzuegbunam, holding, “For purposes of this appeal, it is undisputed that Uzuegbunam experienced a completed violation of his constitutional rights when respondents enforced their speech policies against him. Because ‘every violation [of a right] imports damage…,’ nominal damages can redress Uzuegbunam’s injury even if he cannot or chooses not to quantify that harm in economic terms.”

This case highlights the importance of protecting free speech. To stand up for free speech, check out the Philadelphia Statement and consider joining the over 30,000 individuals who have signed it so far. This statement is intended to “ignite a lasting movement marked by a commitment to free speech, respect for those with different views and peaceful coexistence despite differences.”

As the Philadelphia Statement explains,

“If we seek a brighter future, we must relearn a fundamental truth: Our liberty and our happiness depend upon the maintenance of a public culture in which freedom and civility coexist—where people can disagree robustly, even fiercely, yet treat each other as human beings—and, indeed, as fellow citizens—not mortal enemies.”

To learn more about free speech, check out these Philanthropy Roundtable webinars and podcast interviews:

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