Monday, June 30, 2014
Last year, three families filed suit against the New York City School system for its exclusion of their children because they had not received their vaccinations. They alleged that the forced vaccination program violates their religious beliefs.
In their First Amendment cause of action, Plaintiffs claim their rights to free exercise of religion were violated when their children were excluded from school due to their religious beliefs running counter to vaccination practice. Plaintiffs argue that their children were “arbitrarily, capriciously, unreasonably and unconstitutionally denied” the right to free exercise of religion based on the state vaccination practice, in general, and, in particular, because the religious exemption standards “force[ ] parents to detail their religious beliefs and submit to a ‘test,’ and the determinations of whether or not to grant the religious exemptions falls[ sic ] to the subjective judgment of one school official who is unqualified to make such a determination.”
The district court, in dismissed the case, wrote "not only has the Supreme Court strongly suggested that religious objectors are not constitutionally exempt from vaccinations, courts in this Eastern District have resolutely found there is no such constitutional exemption." Plaintiffs "opine that [the Supreme Court decision] is bad law and ask this Court to overturn the Supreme Court decision, [but] “this the Court cannot do.”" The court dismissed their equal protection and substantive due process claims just as quickly. Plaintiffs plan to appeal the case. The school system welcomed the reaffirmation of its policy, as public health officials indicate that "some diseases are experiencing a resurgence in areas with low vaccination rates."
More on the backstory here.
Thursday, June 19, 2014
The now well-publicized federal lawsuit filed this week by a former high school student after he was suspended for a two-word post highlights the continuing difficulties that school officials have regulating off-campus internet speech. The student, Reid Sagehom, was suspended from Rogers High School in Minnesota for his response to an anonymous question on an unofficial student website asking if he had made out with a female school teacher. Sagehom responded, sarcastically, he says, “Actually yeah.” The school then recommended Sagehom be suspended, ultimately for ten weeks, because he “damaged a teacher's reputation.” Sagehom filed a complaint on Tuesday alleging that his speech was protected and that the subsequent events to the post, including being referred for prosecution and publicly upbraided by a police chief, violated his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Sagehom's complaint may likely never reach the decision stage, but raises issues that continue to bedevil the federal courts -- when does students' off-campus internet speech actually cause a substantial disruption to the educational environment under Tinker? Read the complaint in Sagehom v. Independent School District No. 728, 2014 WL 2724866 (D.Minn. June 17, 2014) here.
Monday, June 16, 2014
The Elmbrook School district in suburban Milwaukee conducted high school graduation ceremonies in the auditorium of a church. The district's decision was based on its school's inadequate space and air conditioning. The graduation itself was completely secular, but some the church's religious symbols remained in the auditorium during graduation. The Court of Appeals held that holding the graduation there conveys the message of government endorsement of religion and, thus, struck down the practice. The Supreme Court denied certiorari in the case today, although the denial drew dissents from Justices Scalia and Thomas. You may recall that earlier this term the Court upheld the practice of prayer at the beginning public meetings as a non-coercive historical practice.
Monday, June 9, 2014
Following a number of school religious expression bills introduced in state legislatures in the last year, the North Carolina House passed a bill last week that allows public school students to pray, express religious viewpoints, pass out religious materials, and assemble "as is given to other noncurricular groups without discrimination based on the religious content of the students' expression." The N.C. House approved S.B. 370, which also provides that school employees who are viewing student religious expression "shall not be disrespectful of the student exercise of such rights and may adopt a respectful posture." The bill will have to return to the state senate for final approval, where it is expected to pass. The ACLU of North Carolina released a statement objecting to the bill's language which it says could leave school officials unclear about the rules, particularly as adopting "a respectful posture" could communicate approval of one religious view above others. In application, the legislation is certain to highlight the tension between the Establishment and the Free Speech and Exercise Clauses that currently require public school officials to show neutrality in their treatment of religion and not inhibit student expression of privately-held views as long as that expression does not infringe upon the rights of others. For an overview of the constitutional issues, read the ED's Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools here.
Wednesday, May 14, 2014
Massachusetts' Supreme Judicial Court held in Doe v. Acton-Boxborough Regional School District that the pledge of allegiance does not violate the state constitution. Plaintiffs' claim was a denial of equal protection rather than religious freedom or establishment of religion. The court reasoned that (1) "the pledge is a fundamentally patriotic exercise, not a religious one;" (2) "no student is required to recite the pledge;" and (3) "[w]here the plaintiffs do not claim that a school program or activity violates anyone's First Amendment religious rights (or cognate rights under the Massachusetts Constitution), they cannot rely instead on the equal rights amendment, and claim that the school's even-handed implementation of the program or activity, and the plaintiffs' exposure to it, unlawfully discriminates against them on the basis of religion."
Plaintiffs' had argued that the Pledge "stigmatize[d]" and "marginalized" some students, making them "feel excluded." Per its third point above, the court emphasized that their was no evidence "that their children have been punished, bullied, criticized, ostracized, or otherwise mistreated by anyone as a result of their decision to decline to recite some (or all) of the pledge." Rather, plaintiffs' claim was
more esoteric. They contend that the mere recitation of the pledge in the schools is itself a public repudiation of their religious values, and, in essence, a public announcement that they do not belong. It is this alleged repudiation that they say causes them to feel marginalized, sending a message to them and to others that, because they do not share all of the values that are being recited, they are "unpatriotic" "outsiders." We hold that this very limited type of consequence alleged by the plaintiffs -- feeling stigmatized and excluded -- is not cognizable under art. 106.(23)
Three weeks ago, I posted on a similar pending suit under New Jersey law. This Massachusetts decision would suggest the answer to my earlier question of whether state courts might treat Pledge challenges differently than federal courts is no.
Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District in New Jersey is being sued over the Pledge of Allegiance. Anonymous parents and the American Humanist Association are bringing the suit. They argue that the the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance discriminates against atheists. The pledge
publicly disparages plaintiffs' religious beliefs, calls plaintiffs' patriotism into question, portrays plaintiffs as outsiders and second-class citizens, and forces (the child) to choose between nonparticipation in a patriotic exercise or participation in a patriotic exercise that is invidious to him and his religious class.
. . .
While plaintiffs recognize that (the child) has the right to refuse participation in the flag-salute exercise and pledge recitation, the child does not wish to be excluded from it, and in fact wants to be able to participate in an exercise that does not portray other religious groups as first-class citizens and his own as second-class.
To bolster their claim that the Pledge reinforces prejudice against atheists and Humanists, they cite to studies showing atheists are the most disliked and distrusted group in the country.
Unlike prior claims brought and rejected under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, this claim proceeds under the New Jersey Constitution, which may make a difference.
In Newdow v. Rio Linda Union School District, 597 F.3d 1007 (9th Cir. 2010), the Ninth Circuit held that the Pledge in school did not violate the establishment clause. It reasoned that the words "under God" cannot be read alone, but must be read in the context of the entire pledge. Based on this context, the court held that the pledge and this phrase were patriotic not religious. It also pointed out that
The Supreme Court has agreed the Pledge is a “patriotic exercise designed to foster national unity and pride.” Elk Grove Unified Sch. Dist. v. Newdow, 542 U.S. 1, 6, 124 S.Ct. 2301, 159 L.Ed.2d 98 (2004). Even the dissent agrees on this determinative point. Dissent at 4040 (“[T]he recitation of the Pledge both as originally written and as amended is a patriotic exercise....”). The question about which we disagree is whether this patriotic activity is turned into a religious activity because it includes words with religious meaning.
The 2010 decision by the 9th Circuit, however, was a shift in course, as some earlier decisions in the circuit had found the pledge to violate the Establishment Clause. The past history, as described by the court in Newdow, follows the jump.
Monday, April 7, 2014
Elizabeth M. Jaffe's roundup of the caselaw and literature on cyberbullying, From the School Yard to Cyberspace: A Review of Bullying Liability, is now available on westlaw at 40 Rutgers Computer & Tech. L.J. 17 (2014). Her introduction summarizes the article as follows:
There has been a lot of change--both good and bad--over the course of scholarship focusing on bullying and cyberbullying. With the growing use of technology, bullies have moved from in-person encounters in the classroom or the schoolyard to chatrooms, walls, pages, and the like in the cyberworld. Despite the increased awareness and media coverage, bullying remains a growing problem in today's society. To that end, there are current voids in the law that need to be revised in order to protect the countless and growing number of victims. Simply put, the law has not gone far enough.
Through my research and involvement with this area of scholarship, there are few things that are clear. The First Amendment protects speech and ideas in the traditional sense but fails to adequately adapt to the changing online landscape. Traditional tort principles of liability have not played out yet to holding a bully liable for his actions, and the notion of holding the webhost liable has not taken hold to the extent that may be necessary. As such, we are left with the dilemma of where the legal landscape needs to proceed. Specifically, some type of duty is needed for bullying liability. But to whom should this duty apply? Accordingly, the purpose of this Article is to synthesize my scholarship to date focusing on the issue of bullying and cyberbullying in the context of primary and secondary education and propose resolutions to the cyberbullying epidemic by reviewing the appropriate instances and individuals to whom a duty should be imposed.
Friday, April 4, 2014
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a district court’s ruling that the New York City’s Board of Education policy prohibiting religious worship services on school grounds violated the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment. In Bronx Household of Faith v. Bd. of Educ. of City of New York, the NYC Board of Education and the local school district appealed a district court's grant of summary judgment permanently enjoining them from enforcing a regulation (Regulation I.Q.) against a church. Regulation I.Q. permits outside groups to use school premises after hours for social and civic activities that are open to the general public, but prohibits the use of school property for religious worship services. In 1994, a local church, the Bronx Household of Faith, applied to use space in a local middle school for church services, but the NYC Board of Education denied the application under Regulation I.Q. Bronx Household sued, arguing that the enforcement of the regulation constituted viewpoint discrimination and violated the First Amendment. In this latest round of litigation —the case has been before the Second Circuit six times—the court of appeals held that Supreme Court precedent in Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520 (1993), does not compel strict scrutiny analysis of Regulation I.Q. Lukumi does not apply to Regulation I.Q., the Second Circuit reasoned, because “a reasonable governmental decision not to subsidize a category of activity is not a suspect discrimination among religions merely because some religions do and others do not engage in that activity. . . We believe the District Court has misunderstood Lukumi in construing it to mean that a rule declining to subsidize religious worship services so as not to risk violating the Establishment Clause is automatically constitutionally suspect and subject to strict scrutiny.” The court of appeals also found the process of determining if a proposed use of school facilities is a religious worship service would not cause an excessive entanglement with religion under the Establishment Clause. Because the Board relies on applicants’ stated characterizations to decide if proposed activities are religious worship services, the Board does not define or make its own determination about what constitutes religious worship. Moreover, the Circuit stated, the Supreme Court’s decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. E.E.O.C., 132 S.Ct. 694 (2012), would not prohibit the Board from making such a decision because 1) the Board would not impose any control over a church's religious activity by determining if they are worship services, and 2) the Supreme Court’s own determination in Hosana-Tabor that the plaintiff was a minister (and thus that the ministerial exception applied to a church's employment decision) belies a conclusion that a governmental entity cannot make such a determination. Read the Second Circuit’s decision in Bronx Household of Faith v. Bd. of Educ. of City of New York, 12-2730-CV, 2014 WL 1316301 (2d Cir. Apr. 3, 2014) here.
Tuesday, March 25, 2014
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to debate Richard Duncan in a Federalist Society forum on school choice. In my naivete, I had assumed the point of the debate was academic. Halfway through it, I felt compelled to point out to the audience that his arguments about religious freedom had moved well beyond constitutional doctrine or sound educational policy. Rather, he was forwarding a political argument masquerading as a constitutional claim. I revel in a good political debate as much as anyone else and said I welcomed a political debate, in which everyone would be entitled to their opinion, but the same is not necessarily true in regard to the constitutional and educational policy claims because there are certain baseline facts and doctrines beyond dispute there.
Nevertheless, I left the debate thinking our conversation was limited to a causal Monday afternoon luncheon. Today, my naivete was exemplified again. Stephanie Simon, of Politico, reports that taxpayers are increasingly bankrolling the tuition of students attending private religious schools. The current total investment in just 14 states is nearly $1 billion a year. Since 2010, those numbers are up 30 percent. Twenty-six additional states are considering measures that would add to this growth. I knew we had seen an uptick in recent years, but not this much. This rapid growth is being fueled by political lobbies. One pro-voucher group, the American Federation for Children, has spent $18 million on these campaigns since 2007.
Of course, this movement is not new. James Foreman's article, The Rise and Fall of School Vouchers: A Story of Religion, Race and Politics, 54 UCLA L. REV. 547 (2007), details how religious advocates for vouchers drew on inner city communities' interest in escaping failing schools to secularize their voucher claims, and how the Supreme Court then sanctioned it. But as charters became more readily available, inner city communities' interest in vouchers fizzled somewhat and, with it, the necessary political support to pass legislation. What is interesting in this new round of advocacy is that since the Court has sanctioned vouchers that place students in religious schools (because the overall program is non-discriminatory and the purported purpose secular), voucher advocates appear more willing to assert religious freedom, if not entitlement, as the basis for expanding voucher programs. They claim the state is discriminating against them if it does not provide them with vouchers. Current doctrine, of course, does not support such a claim. But pushing back against this claim requires that one sees it for what it is: a political claim. Moreover, it may not even be the politics of religion pushing it, but the politics of privatization, which use religious and minority interests as window dressing for a larger agenda.
Friday, March 14, 2014
The following is a cross-post, curtesy of Scott Bauries at edjurist.com. Thanks Scott.
Imagine that you are an educational leader hired to head up an important community college program for at-risk youth. In your first days on the job, you do what any good leader does and audit the books. Through this review, you discover that you have an employee who is drawing a large salary from the program, but is not doing much, if any, work. You do some further digging, and you realize that this "employee" with the "no-show" job is also a sitting state legislator. You care about your fiduciary duty over the public money you've been entrusted, so you confront the no-show employee and request that she begin showing up and working. She not only refuses, but also threatens your livelihood. You are not a coward, so you fire her. Not only that, but when subpoenaed, you testify truthfully against her in her criminal trial once the feds discover her fraud. Soon after, you are fired.
You file suit against your former employer to challenge your termination as retaliation for your speech as a citizen on a matter of public concern. But the District Court, and later the Circuit Court of Appeals, reject your challenge, citing the Suprme Court's recent decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos. In Garcetti, the Court held that, "when public employees speak pursuant to their official duties, they do not speak as citizens, and the First Amendment does not shield their communications from employer discipline." Essentially, speech that a public employee is hired to make is not that employee's own speech, but his work product, and may therefore be the basis of employer discipline. The Circuit Court cites Garcetti and reasons that, because you testified only about matters you learned about at work, your testimonial speech "owe[d] its existence" to your employment, and was therefore made "pursuant to [your] official duties." Notwithstanding the Garcetti rule, the Circuit Court proclaims that it is immaterial that your job does not require you to testify in judicial proceedings, as long as your testimony is about your job.
Should this judicial sleight-of-hand resulting in an unbelievably expansive reading of the Garcetti exemption be allowed to stand? In Lane v. Franks, the Court will consider the question on alleged facts similar to those in the vignette above. Along with Professors Paul Secunda and Sheldon Nahmod, and on behalf of more than 60 other law professors, I have written an amicus brief (free download) arguing for the reversal of the 11th Circuit's flawed reading of Garcetti. The case will be argued on April 28th, and it could have major implications for public employees--including educational employees--nationwide.
Friday, March 7, 2014
One of our recent posts noted the publication of R. George Wright's article, Post-Tinker, 10 Stan. J. Civ. Rts. & Civ. Liberties 1 (January 2014). Considering one of Professor Wright's points-- that we could dispense with Tinker in favor of allowing public schools' to control student speech based on (in part) their responsibility to teach civility and mutual forbearance-- a recent Ninth Circuit case might present a question of if wearing an American flag t-shirt is a breach of civility? In Dariano v. Morgan Hill Unified Sch. Dist., the Ninth Circuit upheld a school official's decision to require high school students wearing t-shirts bearing images of the American flag during a school-sanctioned celebration of Cinco de Mayo to turn the shirts inside out or go home after the school principal learned of threats of violence against the students. During a Northern California school's Cinco de Mayo day, several students wore American flag t-shirts to school, prompting comments from other students who viewed the students' shirts as a slight against Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. A year earlier, there had been threats and obscenities exchanged between a group of predominantly Caucasian students and a group of Latino students when the Caucasian students hung an American flag on a school tree and chanted “USA,” in response to a group of students who had been walking around with a Mexican flag. The day of the flag t-shirt incident a year later, an assistant principal was told that some students were expressing displeasure about the American flag t-shirts. The assistant principal met with the students wearing the U.S. flag shirts and asked them to turn the shirts inside out or remove them, explaining that he was concerned that they may be attacked by students who supported the Cinco de Mayo celebration. The students acknowledged that the shirts might start fights, but refused to take them off. They were sent home with excused absences and stayed home two additional days after receiving threatening text messages. (Two other students were allowed to return to class because the shirts because they were wearing "TapouT," shirts that had a muted version of the U.S. flag.) The students who were sent home sued, alleging that the school violated their rights to freedom of expression, equal protection, and due process. In upholding the district court's grant of summary judgment for the assistant principal, the Ninth Circuit found that given the history of violence at the school, the school officials stopping the display of the t-shirts was a "tailored response" to "anticipated violence or substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities," and therefore the school's response was justified under Tinker. The Ninth Circuit found that the school's response was appropriately tailored under Tinker because while it suppressed the message on the clothing, they students were not punished for it and also allowed students wearing clothing with a less prominent message to wear their shirts. Read Dariano v. Morgan Hill Unified Sch. Dist. here.
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
R. George Wright's article, Post-Tinker, is now available at 10 Stan. J. Civ. Rts. & Civ. Liberties 1 (January 2014). The article argues that
the rise of computer communication by means of portable technologies [does not] necessarily condemn Tinker to irrelevance. It has recently been argued, for example, that "Tinker remains functional, and if properly applied to students' online expression, it can vindicate students' free expression interests while still allowing schools to properly regulate day-to-day student discipline and the educational process." And when we add in the options of modifying Tinker, as by abandoning either the first "disruption" prong or else the second "rights of others" prong, contemporary support for some version of Tinker is even broader.
At this point, however, it is fair, and indeed important, to ask about the likely consequences of radically abandoning Tinker. What might it mean, at this historical point, to abandon Tinker along with its qualifying and limiting cases? The discussion below pursues this question and eventually endorses just such a radical abandonment of Tinker. This is not an anti-student speech conclusion. It is instead a recognition of the importance of allowing public schools, if they so choose and within other constitutional and statutory bounds, to focus more on educational outcomes, equality, or other dimensions of the vital basic mission of contemporary public schools.
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
In Indiana, Establishment Clause questions are being renewed this week about private schools that receive public funds doing what public schools cannot: teaching Christian-based intelligent design doctrine and creationism with taxpayer-funded vouchers. Indiana's South Bend Tribune reports that the state's Choice Scholarship Program funds nearly 20,000 students to attend private schools with about $81 million of public voucher funds. Some of those private schools expressly state that they do not teach evolution as part of their curriculum, substituting faith-based texts for reading, history, and science classes. A recent article in Slate shows the growing amount of tax-credit scholarship and voucher programs going to schools that teach creationism as an alternative to evolution. Indiana's Choice Scholarship Program has not been challenged under the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, although the Indiana Supreme Court ruled last year that the Choice Program did not violate the state constitutional probihibition against funding religious institutions because the direct beneficiaries of the program were schoolchildren rather than the schools selected, and the state clause did not exclude religious teaching from public schools. Meredith v. Pence, 984 N.E.2d 1213 (Ind. 2013). Meredith's lawsuit challenged the state's voucher system generally (Indiana now has one of the most expansive voucher systems in the country), but Establishment Clause challenges could be coming.
Thursday, February 6, 2014
In August 2012, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Moss v. Spartanburg County School District Seven, 683 F.3d 599, (2012), held that a South Carolina statute that allowed public schools to give public school credit for private religious instruction did not violate the First Amendment’s prohibition of establishment of religion. The court reasoned that
The School District employed a model in which primary responsibility for evaluating released time courses lay with accredited private schools, not the public schools. Thus, under this model, an unaccredited entity, such as Spartanburg Bible School, could offer a released time course and assign grades to participating students for transfer to the public school system if it received a stamp of approval from an accredited private school. In this manner, the released time grades are handled much like the grades of a student who wishes to transfer from an accredited private school into a public school within the School District; the public school accepts the grades without individually assessing the quality or subject matter of the course, trusting the private school accreditation process to ensure adequate academic standards.
This model has enabled the School District to accommodate the desires of parents and students to participate in private religious education in Spartanburg County while avoiding the potential perils inherent in any governmental assessment of the “quality” of religious instruction.
A new article by Samuel R. V. Garland-- Moss v. Spartanburg County: How the Fourth Circuit Got it Wrong and What it Means for the Future, 48 Wake Forest L. Rev. 1075 (Fall 2013)--dissects this case. He argues that the Fourth Circuit effectively collapsed the three separate prongs from Lemon v. Kurtzman into a singular conclusory analysis about the statute's constitutionality. Separate consideration of each Lemon prong, or application of the coercion or endorsement tests from other Supreme Court holdings, would have demonstrated that the statute was unconstitutional.
Tuesday, February 4, 2014
Alan Houston, an African-American middle school principal, alleged he was removed from his position in retaliation for racial complaints made by Houston and his wife. Houston alleged this action violated Equal Protection, the First Amendment, and state tort law. The District Court, in Houston v. Indep. Sch. Dist. No. 89 of Okla. Cnty., 949 F.Supp.2d 1104 (W.D. Okla. 2013), dismissed Houston’s equal protection and state claims, but held that he could amend his equal protection claim. The equal protection claim was not fully fleshed out, but my reading is that the better claim would have been a Title VI or Title VII complaint, in which he alleged retaliation for his complaints regarding discrimination. The Supreme Court in Jackson v. Birmingham explicitly recognized such a claim for complaints of gender discrimination under Title IX and lower courts have extended the holding to Title VI.
The First Amendment claim is particularly interesting. The court takes up the Garcetti and Pickering analysis and combines them into a 5-factor test, focusing heavily on whether the speech was of public concern and made in the plaintiff's official capacity. The district court also applies the Twombly/Iqbal pleading standards. In short, the case is a professor's playground for new, controversial and intersecting Supreme Court precedent. Unfortunately, the district court's opinion is relative short.
Monday, January 6, 2014
South Carolina Democrats have renewed a bill that would put "prayer back in schools." I did not know if ever left. No Supreme Court decision has ever done anything to limit a student's voluntary desire to pray. Assuming students still have that desire, they can pretty much pray any time they want, although during classroom instruction may require that they pray silent. What the Supreme Court has held is that school officials cannot lead students in prayer, endorse prayer, construct settings that coerce students to pray, or give students who wish to pray beneficial treatment.
The proposed bill in South Carolina states "All schools shall provide for a minute of mandatory silence at the beginning of each school day, during which time the teacher may deliver a prayer, provided the school allows a student to leave the classroom if the student does not want to listen to or participate in the prayer." I will have to give South Carolina legislators credit for this one. It would seem to violate all four of the above constitutional prohibitions. It provides for teachers to lead prayer. It goes way beyond just endorsement; it mandates time explicitly for prayer. By asking those who do not wish to pray to leave, it asks them to single themselves out as non-believers/non-prayers and, thus, coerces their participation in prayer. Asking everyone who does not wish to prayer to leave the classroom also giver praying students preferential treatment. They get to stay in place while others presumably stand in the hall.
Representative William Gilliard, however, sees this as a compromise bill, reasoning that "students to pray to whomever they want to. If they want to do away with teachers conducting the prayer that would be fine with us. The essential part of the bill, the important part, is putting prayer back in school. There would be no noise, no disruption, no anything. But the teacher would conduct it to let the students know we would have one minute for a moment of silence of prayer. That person can pray to whomever they please.”
For obvious reasons, this bill has stalled in the judiciary committee. But with support from democrats, I would not write this bill off, particularly in a legislature that both now and historically spends a lot of time on "nullification" bills.
Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Seventh Circuit Upholds Firing of School Counselor Who Wrote Relationship Advice Book Titled "It's Her Fault"
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the dismissal of a tenured school guidance counselor's lawsuit who was fired after writing a sexually explicit book entitled It's Her Fault. While upholding the counselor's firiring in Craig v. Rich Twp. High Sch. Dist. 227, 13-1398, 2013 WL 6235856 (7th Cir. Dec. 3, 2013), the appellate court reversed the district court's finding that the book was not a matter of public concern. The case presents some tension, however, in deciding when an employee can be discharged for private sexual expression that would otherwise be protected by the First Amendment. Bryan Craig, a counselor and women's basketball coach at Rich Central High School in suburban Chicago, self-published It's Her Fault, an adult relationship advice book in 2012. Commenting on the book's subject, the 7th Circuit noted that "when we say “adult,” we mean it in every sense of the word—in his book, Craig repeatedly discusses sexually provocative themes and uses sexually explicit terminology." (A brief look at It's Her Fault's Amazon reviews generally supports that assessment.) In the book's introduction, Craig said that he was qualified to give women relationship advice because he coached girls basketball, worked "in an office where I am the only male counselor, and [was] responsible for roughly 425 high school students a year, about half of whom are females.” Craig also thanked his students in the acknowledgements and had another Rich Central write the book's foreword. In September 2012, the Richman Township High School District found out about the book and discharged Craig on three grounds: (1) that the book “caused disruption, concern, distrust and confusion among members of the School District community;” (2) Craig violated the policy “prohibit [ing] conduct that creates ‘an intimidating, hostile, or offensive educational environment;” and (3) that “Craig failed to present [himself as] a positive role model and failed to properly comport himself in accordance with his professional obligations as a public teacher.” Craig sued the school district under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging retaliation against him for engaging in protected speech. The Northern District of Illinois dismissed Craig's suit for failure to state a claim because It's Her Fault did not address a matter of public concern and thus was not entitled to First Amendment protection. Read more after the jump.
Monday, December 2, 2013
Wisconsin Student Speech Decision Reverses on First Amendment Grounds but Affirms Adjudication on Unlawful Computer Use
While the Wisconsin Court of Appeals reversed a student’s disorderly conduct juvenile adjudication on First Amendment grounds last week, the appellate court curiously affirmed the adjudication for violating a state unauthorized-use-of-a-computer statute for the same conduct. Those who follow the developing law of federal unauthorized use statutes will recognize the bedeviling issues that arise when defendants are prosecuted for protected First Amendment speech because of the method used to deliver that speech--a computer. The Wisconsin student, Kaleb K., was prosecuted under state disorderly conduct and unauthorized computer use statutes after posting a YouTube video about his Spanish teacher. At trial, the lower court rejected Kaleb's claim that “the content of his rap was protected by the First Amendment, which barred the State from prosecuting him for disorderly conduct.” The trial court’s findings focused on the rap’s vulgar language without addressing the student’s First Amendment defense. The lower court found the student delinquent for disorderly conduct for the video and for a violating a state law prohibiting the unlawful use of a computerized communication system. The unauthorized use law prohibits using computer communication to send a message to another person “with intent to frighten, intimidate, threaten or abuse … with the reasonable expectation that the person will receive the message and in that message uses any obscene, lewd or profane language or suggests any lewd or lascivious act.” The Wisconsin Court of Appeals affirmed Kaleb K.’s adjudication of guilt on the unlawful use of a computerized communication system under a state case holding that “nonspeech elements” of otherwise protected speech may be subject to prosecution. Given the Court of Appeals’ interesting split reasoning, this case may be headed to Wisconsin’s Supreme Court. The case is In re Kaleb K., No. 2013AP839, 2013 WL 6182562 (Wis. Ct. App. Nov. 27, 2013).
Just before Thanksgiving, a fight broke out between two students at Millennium High School in Goodyear, Arizona, over one student displaying a confederate flag on his car. The school's response: suspend both students for five weeks and ban the student from displaying the confederate flag. The student who displayed the flag still objects, arguing that the flag does not represent racism, but freedom. He offered the standard high school distinction: “The flag means basically more independence, less government. It didn’t mean racism, it didn’t mean slavery, it didn’t mean any of that. It basically meant what they were fighting for was their right to be independent and not have the government control them.”
The school district, of course, responded by pointing out that the confederate flag "has been proven to be patently offensive to certain groups and the courts recognize that.” Moreover, “[o]bviously there was some event that took place it was related to reaction to the flag and it did create an environment where it was disruptive.”
The school is right on courts' interpretation of the flag. Just last year, for instance, the Fourth Circuit in Hardwick ex rel. Hardwick v. Heyward, 711 F.3d 426 (4th Cir. 2013), ruled in favor of a school district that had stopped a student from wearing shirts displaying the Confederate flag because the shirts were likely to cause a substantial disruption to the school environment.
While the current student's position on the flag ignores a lot of history and, even as a high school student, I found such arguments to be silly, I often got the sense that many such students were sincere in their ignorance, which potentially makes these cases more complicated. If a student's argument is pretext, a school can easily intervene. But if the student is expressing a genuine, albiet ignorant, belief about independence, a student's argument gets a little better.
Schools have the authority to limit speech that poses a substantial disruption, but Tinker v. DeMoines, 393 U.S. 503 (1969), indicates that they must distinguish between disruptions that are a result of the person expressing himself and those that are a result of inaappropriate reactions by the listener or viewer. After all, there were some disruptions in Tinker when other students responded to Tinker's Viet Nam protest armband. If the response is, for instance, the result of the listener's immaturity, it is wrong to punish the speaker. This line, however, is far easier to draw in theory than reality, particularly when student speakers and listeners border on per se immature and ignorant in various respects.
In the context of the flag, even if the student's position is sincere, the student has to know that others do not see the flag the same as he does, which raises the question of whether such a student is just being coy in the slavery versus independence distinction. Even if the student does not support racism, the student is probably trying to incite a reaction. If the student were not hoping to incite some reaction, might not the student express his position a little differently? Then again, these are students and wisdom is not to be expected.
Rather than engage in pyscho-babble courts take the understandbly easy route out of these cases and just label the flag disruptive. As a practical matter, I suppose that is correct, but skipping analytical steps is dangerous. Consider the fact that in Hinduism a swatiska is a geometric represenation of the god Ganesha. As a general principle, a school might be inclined to perceive swatiskas as inherently disruptive, just like the confederate flag, but that rationale would quickly fall apart if the school sought to prohibit a Hindu student from displaying it.
(image with permission from Jean nguyen)
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
The Ohio Supreme Court affirmed yesterday a lower court's decision that a teacher could be fired for insubordination, thus avoiding a constiutional question of whether his teaching creationism and intelligent design in science classes imposed religious values on students. John Freshwater was a tenured high school science teacher who worked in the Mount Vernon City School District for twenty years. He had never been disciplined, even though he taught creationism and intelligent design in his eighth grade science classes, a violation of the school district's Academic Content Standards. The school board asked Freshwater to remove religious displays in his classroom such as the Ten Commandments and a poster depicting a Biblical verse above a photograph of former President George W. Bush and former Secretary of State Colin Powell in prayer. The district also warned Freshwater not to proceed with a plan to “critically examine” evolution in his science class. Freshwater ignored both dictates. Freshwater was fired in 2007 after using a Tesla Coil to make a cross on a student's arm that lasted over a week. (He denied intending to do so.) The Mount Vernon City School Board terminated Freshwater for cause because he "injected his personal religious beliefs into his plan and pattern of instructing his students that also included a religious display in his classroom," and for insubordination. Freshwater v. Mt. Vernon City Sch. Dist. Bd. of Edn., 2012-Ohio-889 (Ohio Ct. App. Mar. 5, 2012). The Ohio Supreme Court yesterday found the record supported Freshwater’s termination for insubordination in failing to comply with orders to remove religious materials from his classroom. The Court agreed that the district complied with the First Amendment by not allowing a public school teacher to “engage in any activity that promotes or denigrates a particular religion or religious beliefs while on board property, during any school activity” or when he was teaching." Because the court found that good cause existed for Freshwater's termination, it declined to reach the constitutional issue of "whether Freshwater impermissibly imposed his religious beliefs in his classroom." Read Freshwater v. Mt. Vernon City School Dist. Bd. of Ed. here.