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Supreme Court of the United States

What Are Nominal Damages Anyway? These 5 Quotes from Chike’s Oral Arguments Help Explain

By Sarah Kramer posted on:
January 15, 2021

Earlier this week, Alliance Defending Freedom presented arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of our client Chike Uzuegbunam, a former student at Georgia Gwinnett College.

Chike filed a lawsuit against Georgia Gwinnett after college officials silenced him twice from sharing his faith publicly on campus. Eventually, in response to the lawsuit, Georgia Gwinnett College changed its unconstitutional speech policies and used those changes to argue that Chike’s case should be dismissed. Unfortunately, two federal courts agreed with the college.

While a change in policies is good news for current and future students at Georgia Gwinnett, it does nothing to address the fact that college officials violated Chike’s rights—not just once, but twice. And ultimately, government officials should not be able to violate someone’s rights and then walk away as if nothing happened.

That’s why ADF asked for something called “nominal damages” in this lawsuit.

But what exactly does that mean?

Nominal damages are a small money award that legally recognizes someone’s rights were violated.

And this is largely what the Supreme Court justices focused on in this week’s oral arguments. To understand why the outcome of this case should matter to you, here are a few key quotes from ADF General Counsel Kristen Waggoner’s arguments that help explain the importance of nominal damages.

1. We experience a very real harm when our constitutional rights are violated.

“When Georgia Gwinnett officials stopped Chike Uzuegbunam and [his friend Joseph] from sharing their faith, the officials caused concrete injuries. Chike and Joseph lost forever the chance to get those days back and speak their message to their peers. No policy change can ever restore that lost opportunity.”

2. You can’t put a price tag on our constitutional rights.

“Nominal damages provide a remedy in many contexts, redressing injuries that transcend price tags, from unconstitutional searches and seizures to free exercise and due process violations, to censorship and compulsion of speech. These constitutional rights are invaluable, even when they don't result in quantifiable harm. Yet, the officials urge you to treat them as worthless.”

3. Nominal damages are not about the amount of money.

“[The] amount of money pales in comparison to the harm. It's not that the dollar means so little; it's that the violation means so much. That's why we award the damages in those instances.”

4. Nominal damages represent the fact that real harm was done, even if it cannot be quantified.

“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.”

5. Nominal damages hold government officials accountable for their unconstitutional actions.

“And providing money damages of any amount is significant in that it provides redress for the parties and an enforceable judgment on the merits.”

That’s why Chike’s case is so important. Our constitutional rights are priceless. And if we can’t hold government officials accountable when they violate those rights, then what is the point of having those rights in the first place?

The bottom line is this: When government officials violate our liberties, they should be held responsible—giving people like Chike the justice they deserve.

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Sarah Kramer

Sarah Kramer

Digital Content Specialist

Sarah worked as an investigative reporter before joining the Alliance Defending Freedom team.

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