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Nate Jackson / March 9, 2021

A Win for Free Speech at SCOTUS

The Court ruled 8-1 that a lawsuit may proceed against college campus “free speech zones.”

Chike Uzuegbunam may not be a household name, but the principle for which he fights — free speech — should unify us all. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 Monday that Uzuegbunam can continue his lawsuit against Georgia Gwinnett College over the school’s violation of his freedom of speech by severely restricting his ability to distribute Christian literature on campus.

“University police officers first approached Uzuegbunam as he distributed Christian literature on campus in 2016,” reports The Washington Free Beacon. “The officers told him he could not distribute the literature because he was not in a university-designated ‘free speech zone.’ When Uzuegbunam moved to one of the zones, he was again told to stop because he was being disruptive. University officials allegedly threatened him with disciplinary action. Uzuegbunam, who was joined in the lawsuit by fellow Christian student Joseph Bradford, requested compensatory damages of one dollar to signify that the school had violated his rights.”

Uzuegbunam’s supporters range from Christians and conservative advocates of free speech to even the American Civil Liberties Union, which has been a fair weather fan of its own namesake for some time now.

So why was the decision 8-1 and not 9-0? Chief Justice John Roberts dissented.

Roberts was wrong, albeit for an understandable reason. He bought the same argument that prevailed in lower courts — that Uzuegbunam had no standing in the case, not only as a former student but because the college later reversed its own policy, thus (ostensibly) making the issue moot. He also mocked the $1 damages sought.

But Uzuegbunam’s rights were still violated, and no school should get away with that just because it later backs down. What, then, would prevent a school from censoring speech just long enough to have the intended effect before appearing to relent?

Standing is far more important than just a technicality, and we cannot have a justice system bogged down with lawsuits that do not deal with concrete injury. Yet the First Amendment is under direct and all-out assault, particularly on the very college campuses where it should be a prized right and value. Thus, eight justices were correct in protecting the First Amendment and issuing a warning of sorts to any college administrators who think it will suffice to offer students a “free speech zone” that, in this case, amounted to 0.0015% of campus.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion, which was joined by all seven of the others, and he made clear the bottom line: “It is undisputed that Uzuegbunam experienced a completed violation of his constitutional rights when respondents enforced their speech policies against him.” And that shouldn’t happen in America.

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