Case Insight - Alumni Update February 2021
This month, we would like to give you an insight into a precedent-setting ‘free speech on campus’ case that our US team recently argued at the Supreme Court. In 2016, Georgia Gwinnett College officials stopped student Chike Uzuegbunam not once, but twice, from peacefully sharing his Christian faith with fellow students on his college campus. First, officials said he had to get advance permission to use one of two tiny speech zones that made up far less than 1% of the campus and were only open 10% of the week. Despite following these policies, Chike was again prevented from speaking. After ADF challenged the unconstitutional policies, Georgia Gwinnett argued that Chike’s speech should receive no constitutional protection, changed its policy, and claimed it should be able to avoid any penalty for violating Chike’s free speech rights.
The Supreme Court of the United States heard arguments in this case on January 12, 2021. Now, we are awaiting its decision. We’ve asked Kristen Waggoner, ADF General Counsel, for her insight. Kristen is centrally involved in this case, and she argued the case in front of the Supreme Court. You can watch the recording of the hearing here.
Watch Chike’s story below:
What is the core legal issue at stake in Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski? What are the possible outcomes, and what would they mean for the United States and the rest of the world?
When Georgia Gwinnett officials stopped Chike Uzuegbunam from sharing his faith, the officials caused concrete injuries. Chike and Joseph lost forever the chance to speak their message on that day to their peers. While the College later changed its unconstitutional policy, that change in policy only helped students moving forward. It did nothing to redress the harm caused to Chike, who had graduated.
America’s legal system awards damages in order to redress past violations or harm caused by the government. This is consistent with the English and American common law as well. But two federal courts, including the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, said that courts can’t hold government officials accountable for past constitutional violations unless the plaintiff can prove a quantifiable injury.
Losing one’s religious freedom or free speech rights can be difficult to measure in monetary terms. That’s why the common law and the vast majority of federal appellate courts have awarded nominal damages in such circumstances. 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.
Are there any recent updates in Uzuegbunam v. Preczewskithat the ADF Alumni community should be aware of? Anything going on behind the scenes that we can share with our close community?
When the Supreme Court agrees to hear a case, most of the work is done by the time the Supreme Court hears oral argument. This includes filing briefs on Chike and Joseph’s behalf, but also ensuring that others file friend-of-the court briefs supporting our position.
Thankfully, over 20 briefs were filed in support of Chike’s case including briefs from progressive and conservative public interest legal organizations, student groups, academic freedom experts, and the United States government, as well as atheist, Jewish, Catholic, and Muslim groups. Some of these groups included the ACLU, Cato Institute, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, FIRE, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty.
As we await a ruling from the Court, Chike continues to preach the Gospel and minister to those in need.
What motivates you to fight for justice for Chike Uzuegbunam? And how did you decide to get involved in this case/area of work initially?
It’s truly my privilege to serve at ADF, the largest legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, parental rights, and the sanctity of life.
My path to ADF wasn’t a direct one. My dad always told me that I should discover God’s purpose for my life and that if I missed that purpose, I would be wasting my life. Even today, he often reminds me that biblical heroes like Esther, Deborah, Nehemiah, and David were regular people that God used for His purpose and that I should be willing to take risks for what is right.
After 16 years in private practice, I experienced a growing sense of restlessness—that my faith was prompting me to be more of a “risk taker” for Christ. The fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution seemed to be facing increasing threats and recent court decisions suggested that those who held to traditional religious beliefs would suffer more and more government hostility. There were two cases, Stormans v. Selecky et al. and State of Washington v. Arlene’s Flowers et al., that initially prompted me to get involved in pro-bono advocacy full-time and I haven’t regretted it for a minute. The clients we represent at ADF are amazing—compassionate, kind, and courageous. They are the Esthers, Deborahs, Nehemiahs, and Davids of today.
What do you admire most about Chike Uzuegbunam? What personal/spiritual encouragement and growth have you received as a result of working on this case?
When I heard that Chike’s college argued in court that sharing the Gospel was akin to “fighting words” that deserved no constitutional protection, I was absolutely stunned. ADF exists to keep the door open for the Gospel and Chike is particularly bold about stepping through that door and sharing his faith. He loves to talk to students about who Jesus is and the peace, joy, and purpose that He brings to us. Chike just lights up the room when he starts talking about Christ. Chike’s desire and commitment to see people come to know Christ inspires me.
Is there anything the alumni community can do to make a difference directly in this case?
The community can pray for the case. We expect to hear back in the spring or early summer. Right now, the justices are writing their decisions. Pray that we have favor and for God’s perfect will.
Do you have any advice for alumni who would like to get involved in similar cases in their country?
God has placed all of us in our families, vocations, and communities to serve as witness bearers for Him. We all have a role in protecting fundamental freedoms. We should seize the opportunities God gives to share the Gospel, but also to explain to neighbors and colleagues why we must stand for the right to life, religious freedom, and free speech for all people. These rights are rooted in human dignity and the constitutional principle that government should have limited power over its citizens. These guarantees cannot depend on cultural popularity or political power. A free and tolerant society requires all of us to extend the same constitutional freedoms to others that we ourselves want. As Christians, we are not afraid of debate. We welcome it.