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Supreme Court says religious suit against public college can go forward

The U.S. Supreme Court is seen near the U.S. Capitol, partly obscured by security fencing, on March 3 in Washington, D.C. Photo by Pat Benic/UPI
The U.S. Supreme Court is seen near the U.S. Capitol, partly obscured by security fencing, on March 3 in Washington, D.C. Photo by Pat Benic/UPI | License Photo

March 8 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday in favor of a lawsuit brought by two former students at a public college in Georgia, who said campus policy violated their right to free speech.

The suit originated in 2016 when Chike Uzuegbunam said he was told by Georgia Gwinnett College administrators to stop passing out religious materials and speaking on religious principles. Even after he obtained a permit to do so, he was told again to stop because other students had complained. Another student later joined his suit.

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Both students have since graduated and the college changed its policy, but the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 Monday that the suit can go forward because it seeks small monetary damages, just one dollar.

"Uzuegbunam experienced a completed violation of his constitutional rights when respondents enforced their speech policies against him," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority.

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"Nominal damages can redress Uzuegbunam's injury even if he cannot or chooses not to quantify that harm in economic terms."

In a rare lone dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that the issue was moot because the students were gone and the school changed policy.

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"The challenged restrictions no longer exist," Roberts wrote. "And the petitioners have not alleged actual damages. The case is therefore moot because a federal court cannot grant ... 'any effectual relief whatever.'"

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Kristen Waggoner, the general counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, who argued Uzuegbunam's case before the high court, argued that officials must be held accountable for their actions.

"When public officials violate constitutional rights, it causes serious harm to the victims," Waggoner said in a statement.

"Officials within our public institutions shouldn't get a free pass for violating constitutional rights on campus or anywhere else."

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