Taylor Swift Name-Checked as High Court Probes Mooted Speech Battle

Nominal damages were enough to hold a DJ liable for groping Taylor Swift, but whether they can resurrect a suit against Georgia Gwinnett College is up to the Supreme Court.

(Image via Courthouse News)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The single-dollar court verdict against a DJ who groped Taylor Swift helped the Supreme Court grapple Tuesday with a guttered free-speech case against a public college.

“In the same way that Taylor Swift’s harm compensated her, so too here,” said Justice Elena Kagan, calling the nominal damages awarded to the pop star in 2017 symbolic for “the world of women who have experienced” sexual assaults.

Symbolically again, Swift featured in oral arguments this morning as the high court considered what redress, if any, is available after Georgia Gwinnett College reserved just 0.0015% of its campus as so-called free-speech zones.

The school changed its policy 10 weeks after it was sued by two evangelical Christian students, Chike Uzuegbunam and Joseph Bradford, and a federal judge dismissed their suit after finding that the symbolic dollar that the men sought in nominal damages was not enough to move the case forward.

Uzuegbunam and Bradford seek a reversal now, after the 11th Circuit affirmed.

Arguing on behalf of the state school Tuesday, Georgia Solicitor General Andrew Pinson disagreed that the students are in the same position as Swift, noting that the singer still alleged “clear, compensable injuries,” despite only requesting a dollar, for the jury to award damages.

Chief Justice John Roberts asked the attorney for the former students if all claims for redress are saved so long as the challenge seeks nominal fees — even when a judge has ruled a challenge had no legal standing.

Kristen Waggoner, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom, replied that standing requirements also included the opportunities for redressing injuries, which qualified as a “personal, tangible benefit.”

“The amount or the label is not necessarily significant,” Waggoner said. “What is significant is that the past injury is afforded some sort of redress.”

But the state’s lawyer said it is only by awarding plaintiffs a redress of injury that a case can avoid mootness when there is no longer any threat that injuries to those challenging policies would reoccur. Nominal damages “do not fit that bill,” Pinson argued.

“Generally, past injuries are redressed through compensation, but both modern and historical authorities agree that nominal damages aren’t compensation,” Pinson argued. “Unlike other kinds of damages, the law affirmatively strips nominal damages of that role. They’re an indeterminate and trivial sum precisely because they’re given as a symbol that although the plaintiff proved a legal violation, they’re entitled to exactly zero compensation for it.” 

Department of Justice attorney Hashim Mooppan argued briefly in support of the students Tuesday, concurring with a more practical solution that was floated in arguments.

“If he pays the dollar,” Justice Stephen Breyer asked, “nobody has to adjudicate whether it is or is not unconstitutional?”

“No, because the courts resolve constitutional questions … as a means for resolving controversies between the parties,” Mooppan said. “So if a plaintiff says he’s entitled to a dollar and the defendant says, ‘great, I’m willing to pay a dollar,’ that’s the end of the case.”

Breyer also dug at the thornier issue in the case, which turns on whether both Uzuegbunam and Bradford can claim an injury from the college’s former policy.

Indeed it was only Uzuegbunam who ever made reservations to pass out literature in the free-speech zone at Georgia Gwinnett. After his first effort resulted in complaints, he was barred from reserving the space again.

This led several justices to question Tuesday whether Bradford’s piggybacking on Uzuegbunam’s claims would not further broaden the pool of those who could join on similar challenges. 

As Breyer asked: If Bradford had been injured by the campus’ policies without ever expressing his views, “who wouldn’t be” injured, with the same intent?”

Waggoner said Bradford was injured specifically as soon as his speech was chilled as a response to the campus’ actions against Uzuegbunam. 

“He had a specific intent to engage in the speech and to share his faith in the campus, he was made aware of how the school threatened Chike with discipline, and his speech was chilled because he didn’t want to receive expulsion or suspension or some other form of discipline by engaging in these conversations,” Waggoner said.

Justice Sonya Sotomayor raised the same issue, saying it did not necessarily mean the issue was mooted but did signal that individual hadn’t suffered First Amendment injuries if the government doesn’t know that Bradford wanted to speak and was denied that opportunity.

Waggoner said the issue was not the one the court needed to decide during oral arguments. Rather, it proved that injury in fact ferrets out cases that may only be advisory in nature. 

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