It is generally regarded as a sign of ethics, courage and character to take action “on principle.” In theory, this means that non-ethical considerations (like enrichment, power and popularity) are not the actor’s goals; making a statement for the enlightenment of society is. However, actions on principle can often be quixotic and even silly, causing greater damage, as well as wasting time and money, “on principle” than the message is worth. The folly was nicely illustrated in the ancient burlesque skit above known as “Pay the Two Dollars.”
The issue of how far it was reasonable to go “on principle” was recently explored, of all places, in the U.S. Supreme Court in the oral argument of the case Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski.
Chike Uzuegbunam, a student at Georgia’s Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, was threatened with discipline under the school’s speech code that violated his and other student’s First Amendment rights. He sued the college but it quickly backed down, eliminating its speech restrictions and replacing them with one that allows students to “speak anywhere on campus and at any time without having to first obtain a permit.” State officials said the change made the case moot. A trial judge agreed, and the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, affirmed her ruling.
Uzuegbunam and his student supporters, however, felt strongly that an official declaration that their rights had been violated was important, and they appealed on the grounds that they should be able to pursue their case for nominal damages. This was the issue that got the case before SCOTUS.