WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that a student in Georgia could pursue a lawsuit challenging speech restrictions at his college even though he sought only nominal damages.
Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority in the 8-to-1 decision, said a request for even a token sum, typically a dollar, satisfied the Constitution’s requirement that federal courts decide only actual cases or controversies in cases. The fact that the college had withdrawn the speech code challenged in the suit, he wrote, did not make the case moot.
“Despite being small,” Justice Thomas wrote, “nominal damages are certainly concrete.”
In a spirited dissent, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the majority’s approach will have the effect of “turning judges into advice columnists.”
“If nominal damages can preserve a live controversy,” he wrote, “then federal courts will be required to give advisory opinions whenever a plaintiff tacks on a request for a dollar.”
A trial judge agreed, and the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, affirmed her ruling.
The question for the justices was whether there is anything left to decide when the government changes a policy after being sued and the plaintiff asks for only nominal damages to acknowledge the constitutional violation.
When the case was argued in January, several members of the court referred to what Justice Elena Kagan called “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.”