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Citing Taylor Swift, Supreme Court Seems Set to Back Nominal Damages Suits

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WASHINGTON — About 70 minutes into what had been a meandering and technical Supreme Court argument on Tuesday about whether two Georgia students could sue their college for nominal damages, a series of questions about Taylor Swift brought the issue into focus.

Justice Elena Kagan asked about “the most famous nominal damages case I know of in recent times, which is the Taylor Swift sexual assault case.”

Ms. Swift, the pop superstar, sued a Denver radio host she said had groped her. She sought $1 in nominal damages.

“I’m not really interested in your money,” Justice Kagan said, describing Ms. Swift’s thinking. “I just want a dollar, and that dollar is going to represent something both to me and to the world of women who have experienced what I’ve experienced.”

The jury sided with Ms. Swift and awarded her the dollar she had asked for. “It was unquestionable physical harm, but she just asked for this one dollar to say that she had been harmed,” Justice Kagan told Andrew A. Pinson, Georgia’s solicitor general. “Why not?”

Mr. Pinson admitted that he was only vaguely familiar with the case. But he said that proving a point, as opposed to obtaining compensation, “is not something that federal courts exist to do.”

Justice Amy Coney Barrett followed up with her own thoughts about Ms. Swift’s case. “What Taylor Swift wanted was, you know, vindication of the moral right, the legal right, that sexual assault is reprehensible and wrong,” Justice Barrett said.

And Justice Neil M. Gorsuch said the court should be wary of penalizing plaintiffs who act on principle, including “those like Ms. Swift who have some scruple or reason not to seek more, who could.”

By the end of the argument, it seemed that the singer’s stance would help that of the students in the case before the justices, Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, No. 19-968.

The students said officials at Georgia Gwinnett College, a public institution in Lawrenceville, Ga., had violated their First Amendment rights by enforcing a particularly severe version of the school speech codes that have become common at colleges and universities around the nation.

One of the students, Chike Uzuegbunam, was threatened with discipline for making public remarks about his Christian faith outside a campus food court. Not long after he sued the college, it abandoned its policy and replaced it with one that allows students to “speak anywhere on campus and at any time without having to first obtain a permit.”

The revised policy, state officials said, made the case moot. A trial judge agreed, and the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, affirmed her ruling.

The students said they should be able to pursue their case for nominal damages to seek acknowledgment that their constitutional rights had been violated.

Some members of the court expressed uneasiness with that approach. “The only redress you’re asking for is a declaration that you’re right,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. told Kristen K. Waggoner of Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents the students.

Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh said claims for nominal damages may have an additional goal, at least when plaintiffs are entitled to recover their legal fees. He said he had “the strong suspicion that attorneys’ fees is what’s driving all this on both sides.”

But Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said nominal damages can serve an important goal, as when there is “a real concrete violation that can’t be easily monetized.”

Justice Alito made a similar point in a dissent in April, when the court dismissed a Second Amendment challenge to a New York City gun control ordinance after the city repealed it. The majority said there was nothing left to decide, as the plaintiffs had asked for only a declaration that the law was unconstitutional and an injunction blocking its enforcement.

But, Justice Alito wrote, the plaintiffs might well be entitled to nominal damages.

“Courts routinely award nominal damages for constitutional violations,” he wrote. “And it is widely recognized that a claim for nominal damages precludes mootness.”

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