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Campus Speech Claim Revived as Justices Agree to Hear Challenge

July 9, 2020, 6:46 PM

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review a suit from two former college students who said they were prohibited from proselytizing their Christian faith by a campus policy, since rescinded, that they claimed violated their free speech rights.

The justices revived the challenge on Thursday after two lower courts had dismissed it as moot once Georgia Gwinnett College changed its policies after the students sued.

Chike Uzuegbunam was twice stopped by campus police while trying to proselytize. One instance occurred outside of the school’s designated speech zones, while another occurred within them. Joseph Bradford “self-censured” after hearing of Uzuegbunam’s troubles, the case alleged.

Campus speech policies have garnered legal and other scrutiny, especially involving instances of students articulating conservative views.

The case will be heard next term. The justices this term were faced with the argument that nominal damages for past constitutional violations—awarded when there’s been wrongdoing but no financial harm—can’t be mooted by the wrongdoer’s own actions.

In New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. New York the high court reviewed a New York City law limiting where gun owners could take them. After the city—and the state—changed the law, the court nixed the case as moot in April.

But Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, lamented that the court in that case let the city off the hook by allowing it to “manufacture mootness” in order to avoid an adverse ruling.

It is “widely recognized that a claim for nominal damages precludes mootness,” Alito wrote.

The justices were urged to take the campus speech dispute from a broad group of interests filing amicus, or friend of the court, briefs.

Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim groups teamed with the American Humanist Association and the Koch-backed Americans For Prosperity Foundation in urging the justices to overturn the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

Its outlier rule risks suppressing minority views on campus and fails to hold public officials accountable, they argue.

The case is Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, U.S., No. 19-968.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson in Washington at krobinson@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Seth Stern at sstern@bloomberglaw.com; John Crawley at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com

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