Courtrooms can be uncomfortable places.
There is a very defined line between opposing parties, each having arrived with a singular goal.
Prove the other guy wrong.
So, when two organizations who often go head-to-head in courtrooms across the country come together on the same side of an issue, it’s worth paying attention.
One such issue is before the Supreme Court in its upcoming term.
When Chike Uzuegbunam was a student at Georgia Gwinnett College, officials told him he was not allowed to share the Gospel with fellow students unless he reserved one of two miniscule “speech zones.” Even after doing so, campus officials ordered Chike to stop speaking yet again.
After ADF filed a lawsuit on Chike’s behalf, the college changed its policy in an effort to undermine his case. But it claimed it should be free from any consequences for violating Chike’s constitutional rights.
It gets better.
Two lower courts—a federal district court in Georgia and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit—let the college get away with it. Each said the case was moot because Georgia Gwinnett College changed its policies. They gave the officials a free pass and sent a clear message: it simply did not matter how they had mistreated Chike.
The injustice hasn’t gone unnoticed. Many civil-rights organizations are tired of seeing unconstitutional policies like Georgia Gwinnett’s sneak in and sneak out without anyone being held responsible—including organizations that often find themselves planted firmly between ADF and the goals we hope to achieve.
The ACLU, perhaps most famously.
Joined by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, the Institute for Justice, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State (another organization often opposed to ADF in the courtroom), the ACLU has submitted a 29-page brief explaining why it supports Chike. The ACLU’s “friend of the court,” or amicus brief, focuses heavily on Chike's right to claim nominal damages—a small money award that legally recognizes a student’s rights were violated.
“[A]n award of damages, ‘whether compensatory or nominal,’ alters the legal relationship between the parties and ‘modifies the defendant’s behavior for the plaintiff’s benefit by forcing the defendant to pay an amount of money he otherwise would not pay.’”
To be clear: Chike is not looking for a payday. Nominal damages generally amounts to $1. But that $1 is a tangible representation of the fact that his rights were violated, and a reminder to Georgia Gwinnett that doing so again will find them in violation of precedent.
“In sum, civil-rights plaintiffs in myriad constitutional contexts, and of all political persuasions and beliefs, share one common thread: they have suffered real harms that transcend easy price tags. Nominal damages are often the only avenue available to remedy that wrong... The Eleventh Circuit’s outlier rule would upset the longstanding role that nominal damages have played in providing concrete redress for past constitutional injuries, and would enable governmental actors to evade accountability for their unconstitutional policies.”
The tone is set quickly as the AHA asks: “Should this Court obliterate a remedy essential to enforcing the constitutional rights most vital to our democracy?”
That is what’s at stake in Chike’s case.
“Courts should hold government officials accountable when they violate First Amendment freedoms. The government is supposed to protect those freedoms, not take them away,” said ADF General Counsel Kristen Waggoner.
In its amicus brief, the AHA continues...
“Now is not the time to embolden the government to experiment on our liberties. Now is not the time to tell citizens their First Amendment rights do not matter. Now is the time to instill confidence in an anxious America and celebrate a constitutional heritage strong enough to unite the likes of the AHA and ADF.”
Couldn’t have said it better ourselves.