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Supreme Court of the United States

How Colleges Are Violating Students' Rights and Getting Away With It

By Maureen Collins posted on:
December 15, 2020

Back in 2016, Chike Uzuegbunam had something important taken from him on campus. It wasn’t something physical like a laptop or a textbook but rather something infinitely more personal and important—his constitutional freedoms.

Georgia Gwinnett College officials silenced Chike and prevented him from speaking about his Christian faith on campus twice. Chike challenged the college’s speech policies in court. The college responded that Chike’s speech should receive no constitutional protection. Then by the time the court ruled, the college had decided to modify its unconstitutional polices, and Chike had already graduated. So two courts dismissed his case as if what had happened to him didn’t matter.

Now Chike is still waiting for justice. This January, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments in his case.

Like Chike, many college students across the country have had their rights violated by public universities. And yet, by the time these colleges and universities finally change these unconstitutional policies, the students who challenged the policies in the first place have often graduated, leading some courts to dismiss the case as if no harm was done.

But harm was done. These students have had something taken away from them which they cannot replace—something that was enshrined by our founders in the Bill of Rights.

For that reason, Chike isn’t giving up—he’s pursuing justice not only for himself, but also for any student who has been silenced by their university.

The Bill of Rights Doesn’t Have a Price Tag

If someone breaks into your house and steals your TV, it’s pretty simple to quantify how much they took from you. You can easily show in a police report or in a civil court that you lost $200 because that person violated your property rights.

But what happens when someone violates not your property rights, but your constitutional rights? How can you even begin to quantify what you lost when a person or a group violates your right to free speech by silencing you?

It’s a tricky question. But we know this much: You lost something. And courts need an opportunity to hold government officials accountable for your loss. The Bill of Rights protects important freedoms. And anytime those priceless constitutional rights are violated, there is a very real damage, even though it may be difficult to put a price tag on it.

That’s why many plaintiffs receive what are called “ nominal damages ” as a part of a win in a free speech case. Nominal damages let courts rule on important constitutional cases like Chike’s, so that government officials do not get a free pass when they violate constitutional rights and do not continue violating other individual’s rights in the future.

But recently, on college campuses, a disturbing trend has emerged.

College Administrators Are Violating the First Amendment

Administrators at public universities will violate the free speech rights of their students , professors, or visitors through unconstitutional policies. Then, when the silenced individuals challenge those policies in court, colleges will respond by changing the policies. Because of those changes, courts will consider these cases resolved.

While changing an unconstitutional policy is a good thing, we must also recognize the harm suffered by those whose freedom of speech was taken away from them.

“Most students at four-year nonprofit colleges graduate within four years,” noted legal scholars in Reason magazine , “Meanwhile, the median time it took a federal district court to complete a trial in 2015 was 25.2 months.”

This is a big issue.

It means that colleges can get away with having unconstitutional speech policies so long as they change them if they’re challenged. All the while, they know they can run out the clock until a student graduates.

But this issue reaches beyond the students who are challenging these policies. For any one student challenging bad speech policies like Chike, there are many more students harmed. We know for a fact in Chike’s case that another student named Joseph Bradford decided not to speak up about his faith because he saw what happened to Chike!

It’s time for college officials to be held accountable for having speech codes that violate students’ rights. And it’s time for Chike and Joseph to finally receive justice for the damage Georgia Gwinnett College did to them.

Because the Bill of Rights exists to protect the freedom of speech for every American— even if their university doesn’t like what they have to say.

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Maureen Collins

Maureen Collins

Digital Cultivation Manager

Maureen Collins serves as the Digital Cultivation Manager at Alliance Defending Freedom.

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