WASHINGTON — A few years ago, a college student in Georgia stood on a stool outside a campus food court to talk about his Christian faith. He spoke for 20 minutes about human frailty and the possibility of salvation when school officials told him he had to stop or face discipline.
This fall, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether the student, Chike Uzuegbunam, can sue the officials for violating his First Amendment rights when they enforced a particularly severe version of the school speech codes that have become commonplace at colleges and universities around the nation.
Mr. Uzuegbunam had tried to comply with the rules at his school, Georgia Gwinnett College, a public institution in Lawrenceville, Ga., that sprawls over 260 acres. The college had designated two small patches of concrete as “free speech expression areas.”
By the calculations of Mr. Uzuegbunam’s lawyers, the areas in which free speech was permitted — a patio and a sidewalk — amounted to .0015 percent of the campus.
The free speech zones were available, moreover, only on weekdays and only for four hours on most days and two on Fridays. Students could reserve them once every 30 days.
When Mr. Uzuegbunam stepped onto his stool in August 2016, he was in one of the free speech zones. Indeed, he had reserved the space, submitting a free speech area request form three business days before, as required by the college’s elaborate freedom of expression policy.
“All I wanted to do,” Mr. Uzuegbunam said at a news briefing, “was to share with other students the faith that has changed my life.”
A campus police officer told him that he could distribute literature and have one-on-one conversations. But public speaking in a free speech zone, the officer said, amounted to disorderly conduct.
Mr. Uzuegbunam sued, saying the college’s policies violated his First Amendment rights. In a brief seeking to dismiss the case, Christopher M. Carr, the state’s attorney general, made a remarkable argument.
“Plaintiff’s open-air speaking arguably rose to the level of ‘fighting words,’” Mr. Carr wrote, referring to one of the few categories of speech that are entitled to no protection under the First Amendment. “Plaintiff used contentious religious language that, when directed to a crowd, has a tendency to incite hostility.”
The college’s defense of its speech code did not last long. About a month after Mr. Carr filed his brief, the college abandoned its policy, perhaps sensing that it was a constitutional catastrophe.
Under the revised policy, Mr. Carr wrote in a second brief, students “may speak anywhere on campus and at any time without having to first obtain a permit.”
“While students may utilize the public forum areas,” he wrote, “they are not required to do so and can, instead, speak anywhere on campus.”
The question for the Supreme Court is whether there is anything left to decide when the government changes its policies after being sued.
The answer depends on what plaintiffs had sought in their lawsuits. If all they asked for was that a policy be overturned, there may well be nothing left for a court to do. If the plaintiffs asked for money to compensate them for injuries, their cases would typically proceed.
Mr. Uzuegbunam’s case presents a middle ground: He asked for nominal damages, just enough to acknowledge that his constitutional rights had been violated. But the 11th Circuit said that a request for nominal damages did not turn a moot case into a live one.
The Supreme Court considered a similar question in April, when it 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 the majority left open the possibility that the plaintiffs could still ask for money as the case moved forward.
Three dissenting members of the court — Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch — would have gone further. Even if the plaintiffs had not suffered harm that could be measured in money, Justice Alito wrote, they 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.”
Justice Alito cited decisions from five federal appeals courts to support that last point and added that only “a single circuit has held that a claim for nominal damages alone does not maintain a live dispute.” That was the 11th Circuit, the one that had ruled in Mr. Uzuegbunam’s case.
Mr. Uzuegbunam has attracted supporting briefs from an array of religious groups, including Catholic, Jewish and Muslim organizations. The American Humanist Association, which rejects religion and notes that it is “on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum” from Alliance Defending Freedom, the Christian legal group representing Mr. Uzuegbunam, filed a brief saying the two groups were united “in their esteem for First Amendment liberties and their conviction that such rights are meaningless if they cannot be vindicated.”
Mr. Uzuegbunam said his case was both simple and timely.
“The essence of free speech is the ability to tell people the things they do not want to hear,” he said. “And that is especially true today, when almost anything is practically guaranteed to offend someone’s comfort.”