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For the purpose of U.S. Const. art. III standing, nominal damages provide the necessary redress for a completed violation of a legal right.
In 2016, Chike Uzuegbunam talked with interested students and handed out religious literature on campus grounds. Uzuegbunam stopped after a campus police officer informed him that campus policy prohibited distributing written religious materials outside areas designated for that purpose. A college official later explained to Uzuegbunam that he could speak about his religion or distribute materials only in two designated speech areas on campus, and even then, only after securing a permit. But when Uzuegbunam obtained the required permit and tried to speak in a free speech zone, a campus police officer again asked him to stop, this time saying that people had complained about his speech. Campus policy at that time prohibited using the free speech zone to say anything that disturbed the peace and/or comfort of persons. The officer told Uzuegbunam that his speech violated campus policy because it had led to complaints, and the officer threatened Uzuegbunam with disciplinary action if he continued. Uzuegbunam again complied with the order to stop speaking. Another student who shared Uzuegbunam's faith, Joseph Bradford, decided not to speak about religion because of these events. Both Uzuegbunam and Bradford sued certain college officials charged with enforcement of the college's speech policies, arguing that these policies violated the First Amendment. The students sought injunctive relief and nominal damages. The college officials ultimately chose to discontinue the challenged policies rather than to defend them, and they sought dismissal on the ground that the policy change left the students without standing to sue. The parties agreed that the policy change rendered the students' request for injunctive relief moot, but disputed whether the students had standing to maintain the suit based on their remaining claim for nominal damages. The Eleventh Circuit held that while a request for nominal damages can sometimes save a case from mootness, such as where a person pleaded but failed to prove an amount of compensatory damages, the student’s plea for nominal damages alone could not by itself establish standing. The students challenged the decision.
Did the students have standing to maintain the suit based on their remaining claim for nominal damages?
The Court held that, for the purpose of U.S. Const. art. III standing, nominal damages provide the necessary redress for a completed violation of a legal right. Because nominal damages were available at common law in analogous circumstances, a request for nominal damages satisfied the redressability element of standing where a plaintiff's claim is based on a completed violation of a legal right. The Court noted that for purposes of this appeal, it was undisputed that petitioner experienced a completed violation of his constitutional rights when campus officials enforced their speech policies against him. Because every violation of a right imported damage, nominal damages can redress petitioner's injury even if he cannot quantify that harm in economic terms.