Panel Hears Bid for Damages Over Campus Speech Zones

ATLANTA (CN) — An attorney representing two Georgia students who claim their college’s policy of designating free-speech zones on campus violates their First Amendment rights asked an 11th Circuit panel Tuesday to allow them to seek damages against school administrators.  

Chike Uzuegbunam and Joseph Bradford, both evangelical Christians, sued Stanley Preczewski, president of Georgia Gwinnett College, and other school officials in December 2016, claiming the public college in Lawrenceville unfairly restricted their free-speech rights by limiting student speech and assembly to two “tiny” zones on campus under its freedom of expression policy.

According to the students’ complaint, the free-speech zones made up less than 0.0015% of the campus. Student expression in those areas was limited to between two and four hours per day on weekdays, they say.

The students allege they were forced to submit a request form three days in advance and submit any publicity materials or literature they wanted to distribute to administrators for review before any demonstrations could take place. Free-speech vents could take place elsewhere on campus but not without a permit from school officials, according to the complaint.

Uzuegbunam claims he was stopped from distributing religious literature outside the college’s library in July 2016 by a campus safety officer because he was outside of the speech zones and had not obtained a permit.

After Uzuegbunam reserved one of the zones to talk about his religious beliefs a month later, he says a campus police lieutenant required him to stop giving a public address inside the zone and asked him to limit his demonstration to distributing literature and having one-on-one conversations with people.

The lieutenant allegedly told Uzuegbunam that people were complaining about the demonstration and warned him that his open-air public address constituted “disorderly conduct,” saying the student would be prosecuted if he continued to speak.

Uzuegbunam stopped speaking publicly and left the area. He graduated from Georgia Gwinnett College in August 2017.

Ten weeks after the students filed their lawsuit against the administrators, the college modified its policies to allow students to speak and distribute literature in open outdoor areas of the campus. Under the new policy, prior reservations are only required for student groups of over 30 members or non-student community members.

U.S. District Judge Eleanor Ross in Atlanta dismissed the case without prejudice in May 2018, finding that the policy changes rendered the students’ lawsuit moot. She noted that Georgia Gwinnett College “has unambiguously terminated the prior policies and there is no reasonable basis to expect that it will return to them.”

Ross ruled that the students did not have standing to pursue compensatory damages in addition to nominal damages since they did not allege that they suffered any actual injury. Since the old policies were nixed, the judge said there is no longer any “practical remedy” to offer the students.

Attorney Travis Barham of the Alliance Defending Freedom asked a three-judge 11th Circuit panel Tuesday to reverse the district court’s ruling so the students can file an amended complaint seeking compensatory damages.

“[The] plaintiffs incurred financial costs to go to campus. They have travelling expenses. [Uzuegbunam] also suffered reputational injuries when he was told he would be cited for disorderly conduct,” Barham said.

“Didn’t the district court dismiss the case without prejudice?” asked U.S. Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus, a Bill Clinton appointee.

“Yes, but nine minutes later the district court issued a judgment,” Barham responded, explaining that Ross’ decision to enter a judgment in the case left the students unable to file any further motions.

“Nothing can erase these constitutional injuries,” Barham added. “We’re only seeking compensatory and nominal damages for the period of time when [the plaintiffs’] constitutional rights were damaged by the policy.”

But Georgia Assistant Attorney General Ellen Cusimano, arguing for the school administrators, told the panel that the students already had ample time to file a motion to amend their complaint before Ross entered her judgment.

“Once we filed our motion to dismiss, the two students could have very easily filed a motion to amend,” Cusimano said.

Marcus was joined on the panel by Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Susan Black, appointed by George H.W. Bush, and Senior U.S. Judge Jane Restani, a Ronald Reagan appointee sitting by designation from the Court of International Trade.

The panel did not indicate when it will reach a decision in the case.

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