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Supreme Court hears arguments on recovery of damages for unconstitutional policies that have since changed
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Supreme Court hears arguments on recovery of damages for unconstitutional policies that have since changed

The US Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday in Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski to determine whether a plaintiff may recover nominal damages for an unconstitutional government policy when the government has changed the policy since the plaintiff originally filed the suit.

In 2016 Chike Uzuegbunam, a student at Georgia Gwinnett College and an evangelical Christian, had attempted to hand out religious literature on the college’s campus. When told to stop by a campus police officer, Uzuegbunam complied with the school’s “freedom of expression” policy by reserving a designated “speech zone.” However, Uzuegbunam was again asked to stop because the school had received complaints about him and his activities. Uzuegbunam filed a lawsuit against several of Georgia Gwinnett’s officials and campus police seeking nominal damages.

Georgia Gwinnett College relaxed its speech policy several months after Uzuegbunam filed the lawsuit. Students no longer needed to reserve a “speech zone” or obtain any other permit. Because of this policy change, the district court dismissed Uzuegbunam’s case as moot. The US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed, concluding that his “claims for nominal damages could not save [his] otherwise moot constitutional challenges to the Prior Policies.”

Uzuegbunam appealed to the Supreme Court arguing that nominal damages are an “effectual relief” because “they remedy past injuries and permanently alter the parties’ relationship. And no prospective change to a defendant’s policies or conduct can remedy or undo past, completed injuries.”

During Tuesday’s oral argument Uzuegbunam’s counsel Kristen Waggoner argued that even if nominal damages are seen as “partial redress,” “partial redress is still redress. … When money changes hands that is a tangible benefit for Article III purposes.” She continued:

Several Justices have raised questions as to what the purpose of nominal damages are. Symbolic has come to mind. Yes, they’re symbolic in the sense that there is an intrinsic value to the lost constitutional right that far exceeds the one, ten, or 100 dollars that is afforded in response for that.

In an opinion piece for the Washington Post, Uzuegbunam shared his reasoning for persisting with his case: “But how important is freedom if those who impinge on it are never told that their rules are unconstitutional, are never put on notice that they can’t simply change the rules when someone protests and are then free to return to their unconstitutional ways whenever they like?”