Justia Communications Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Education Law
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Kennedy lost his job as a high school football coach after he knelt at midfield after games to offer a quiet personal prayer. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the summary judgment rejection of Kennedy’s claims against the school district. The Supreme Court reversed. The Constitution neither mandates nor permits the government to suppress such religious expression. The district acted on a mistaken view that it has a duty to suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech.A plaintiff may demonstrate a free exercise violation by showing that a government entity has burdened his sincere religious practice pursuant to a policy that is not “neutral” or “generally applicable,” triggering strict scrutiny. Kennedy seeks to engage in a sincerely motivated religious exercise that does not involve students; the district’s policies were neither neutral nor generally applicable. The district sought to restrict Kennedy’s actions at least in part because of their religious character.Kennedy established a Free Speech Clause violation. When an employee “speaks as a citizen addressing a matter of public concern,” courts should engage in “a delicate balancing of the competing interests surrounding the speech and its consequences.” Kennedy was not engaged in speech “ordinarily within the scope” of his coaching duties. His prayers occurred during the postgame period when coaches were free to attend to personal matters and students were engaged in other activities.In place of the “Lemon” and “endorsement” tests, courts should look “to historical practices and understandings.” A rule that the only acceptable government role models for students are those who eschew any visible religious expression would undermine a long constitutional tradition of tolerating diverse expressive activities. View "Kennedy v. Bremerton School District" on Justia Law

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N.J., in seventh grade, went to school wearing a T-shirt displaying a Smith & Wesson logo, with an image of a revolver. A.L., a high school student, went to school wearing a T-shirt bearing the logo of a gun-rights group, incorporating an image of a handgun. Administrators at both schools barred the boys from wearing the shirts. Neither school’s dress code expressly bans clothing with images of firearms; the dress codes prohibit “inappropriate” attire, which the administrators interpreted to bar any clothing with an image of a firearm. The students brought separate lawsuits alleging violations of their free-speech rights under 42 U.S.C. 1983.The district court consolidated the cases and granted the school administrators summary judgment, declining to apply the Supreme Court’s “Tinker” precedent, which established the legal standard for student-speech cases. The court applied the standard for speech restrictions in a nonpublic forum—the most lenient test— and upheld the administrators’ actions as viewpoint neutral and reasonable.The Seventh Circuit remanded. This is not a speech-forum case. Tinker provides the legal standard: restrictions on student speech are constitutionally permissible if school officials reasonably forecast that the speech “would materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school” or invade the rights of others. Although this test is deferential to school officials and is “applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment,” it is stricter than the test for speech restrictions in a nonpublic forum. View "N.J. v. Sonnabend" on Justia Law

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Riley’s Farm provides historical reenactments and hosts apple picking. In 2001-2017, schools within the District took field trips to Riley’s. In 2018, Riley used his personal Twitter account to comment on controversial topics. Parents complained; a local newspaper published an article about Riley and his postings. The District severed the business relationship. In a 42 U.S.C. 1983 suit alleging retaliation for protected speech, the district court granted the District defendants summary judgment.The Ninth Circuit reversed as to injunctive relief but affirmed as to damages. Riley made a prima facie case of retaliation; he engaged in expressive conduct, some of the District defendants took an adverse action that caused Riley to lose a valuable government benefit, and those defendants were motivated by Riley’s expressive conduct. There was sufficient evidence that Board members had the requisite mental state to be liable for damages. The defendants failed to establish that the District’s asserted interests in preventing disruption to their operations and curricular design because of parental complaints outweighed Riley’s free speech interests. Even assuming that the selection of a field trip venue was protected government speech, the pedagogical concerns underlying the government-speech doctrine did not apply because Riley was not speaking for the District. Nonetheless, the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity on the damages claim. There was no case directly on point that would have clearly established that the defendants’ reaction to parental complaints and media attention was unconstitutional. View "Riley’s American Heritage Farms v. Elsasser" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part the judgment of the trial court in favor of Hamilton Southeastern Schools (HSE) and dismissing WTHR-TV's complaint seeking documents in a HSE employee's personnel file, holding that HSE's factual basis for the employee's discipline was insufficient.Rick Wimmer, a teacher at an HSE high school, was disciplined for an unknown reason. WTHR requested access to and copies of the portions of Wimmer's personnel file that contained disclosable information under Ind. Code 5-14-3-4(b)(8), which requires public agencies to disclose certain information in public employee personnel files, including the "factual basis" for the disciplinary actions. HSE responded by providing a compilation of the requested information but did not provide copies of the underlying documents in the personnel file. WTHR sued, and the trial court ruled for HSE. The Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed and remanded in part, holding (1) WTHR was not entitled to the underlying documents because an agency may compiled the required information into a new document; and (2) a "factual basis" must be a fact-based account of what caused the discipline instead of a bald conclusion, which is what HSE provided in this case. View "WTHR-TV v. Hamilton Southeastern Schools" on Justia Law

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In 2016, a Madison student fired a gun and injured four students. Approximately two years later, the School Board enacted a resolution allowing staff to carry concealed weapons. Around the same time, Madison students walked out of class during the school day to protest gun violence; school administration disciplined those students. The plaintiffs began attending Board meetings. At one meeting, three were not allowed to speak for failure to complete a “public participation form,” in person, at least two business days before the meeting. Another plaintiff finished his (under three-minute) speech while a security officer escorted him from the room.The plaintiffs sued under 42 U.S.C. 1983, challenging the Board Policy’s “use of vague and undefined terms” and “the imposition of content-based restrictions on speech.” The district court granted the Board summary judgment. The Sixth Circuit reversed in part. The Policy’s restrictions on “abusive,” “personally directed,” and “antagonist” statements discriminate based on viewpoint and were unconstitutionally applied to silence the plaintiff. The antagonistic restriction, by definition, prohibits speech opposing the Board. The plaintiff spoke calmly and refrained from personal attacks or vitriol, focusing on his stringent opposition to the Board’s policy and his belief that the Board was not being honest about its motives. The preregistration requirement is a content-neutral time, place, manner restriction that narrowly serves a significant government interest and leaves ample alternative channels. View "Ison v. Madison Local School District Board of Education" on Justia Law

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B.L. failed to make her school’s varsity cheerleading squad. While visiting a store over the weekend, B.L. posted two images on Snapchat, a social media smartphone application that allows users to share temporary images with selected friends. B.L.’s posts expressed frustration with the school and the cheerleading squad; one contained vulgar language and gestures. When school officials learned of the posts, they suspended B.L. from the junior varsity cheerleading squad for the upcoming year.The Third Circuit and Supreme Court affirmed a district court injunction, ordering the school to reinstate B. L. to the cheerleading team. Schools have a special interest in regulating on-campus student speech that “materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others.” When that speech takes place off-campus, circumstances that may implicate a school’s regulatory interests include serious bullying or harassment; threats aimed at teachers or other students; failure to follow rules concerning lessons and homework, the use of computers, or participation in online school activities; and breaches of school security devices. However, courts must be more skeptical of a school’s efforts to regulate off-campus speech.B.L.’s posts did not involve features that would place them outside the First Amendment’s ordinary protection; they appeared outside of school hours from a location outside the school and did not identify the school or target any member of the school community with vulgar or abusive language. Her audience consisted of her private circle of Snapchat friends. B.L. spoke under circumstances where the school did not stand in loco parentis. The school has presented no evidence of any general effort to prevent students from using vulgarity outside the classroom. The school’s interest in preventing disruption is not supported by the record. View "Mahanoy Area School District v. B. L." on Justia Law

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In this case alleging that Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) failed to maintain and produce certain government data the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the court of appeals holding that Plaintiff's complaint under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act was insufficiently pleaded and affirmed the court's holding that the Minnesota Official Records Act did not authorize a private cause of action, holding that the allegations of Plaintiff's complaint were sufficient.In his complaint, Appellant alleged that the actions of MnSCU violated both the Data Practices Act and the Official Records Act. The district court dismissed both claims, concluding that Appellant could not pursue judicial remedies under the Data Practices Act after obtaining an administrative remedy under the that and that the Official Records Act does not authorize a private cause of action. The court of appeals affirmed but decided the Data Practices Act issue on the alternate ground that the complaint was insufficiently pleaded. The Supreme Court reversed in part, holding (1) Appellant's complaint was sufficiently pleaded; and (2) the Official Records Act does not authorize a private cause of action. View "Halva v. Minnesota State Colleges & Universities" on Justia Law

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Speech First challenged University of Illinois policies that allegedly impermissibly chill the speech of its student members. The Bias Assessment and Response Team (BART) responds to reports of bias-motivated incidents. Most students contacted by BART either do not respond or decline to meet; they suffer no consequences. If a student agrees to meet, BART staff explains that the student's conduct drew attention and gives the student an opportunity to reflect upon her behavior. BART’s reports are not referred to the University Police. The University Housing Bias Incident Protocol addresses bias-motivated incidents committed within University housing. There are no sanctions or discipline associated with a reported incident. When a student breaches his housing contract or violates University policy, there is a separate disciplinary process. Expression of the views described in the complaint would not contravene housing contracts nor violate any University policies. Individuals subject to student discipline may be subject to “No Contact Directives” (NCDs) and prohibited from communication with identified parties. NCDs do not constitute disciplinary findings and are not part of the students’ official disciplinary records. An NCD does not prohibit the student from talking or writing about the other. The University has not investigated or punished any members of Speech First under any of the challenged policies.The Seventh Circuit affirmed the denial of a preliminary injunction. Speech First failed to demonstrate that its members face a credible fear that they will face discipline on the basis of their speech as a result of the policies. View "Speech First, Inc. v. Killeen" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the circuit court dismissing with prejudice Transparent GMU's petition for writ of mandamus seeking to obtain donor information under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (VFOIA), Va. Code 2.2-3700 et seq., from George Mason University (GMU) and the George Mason University Foundation, Inc. (the Foundation), holding that the Foundation's records were not subject to disclosure under VFOIA.Transparent filed VFOIA requests with GMU and the Foundation seeking records of grants and donations involving contributions to or for GMU from any of several charitable foundations. The Foundation, a privately held corporation established the raise funds and manage donations given for the benefit of GMU, responded that it was not a public body and its records were not public records subject to VFOIA. Transparent filed a petition for mandamus relief. The circuit court found that the Foundation was not a public body under VFOIA and dismissed the petition with prejudice. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding the Foundation was not a public body subject to VFOIA. View "Transparent GMU v. George Mason University" on Justia Law

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Sensabaugh, the former head football coach at David Crockett High School in Washington County, Tennessee, made two Facebook posts expressing his concerns about the conditions and practices of schools within the District. The posts included pictures of students. Sensabaugh refused to comply with requests to remove the posts and became aggressive with his supervisors who noted other alleged misconduct, including his use of profane language with students and his requiring a student to practice while injured. He was fired after a guidance meeting where his conduct caused his supervisor to report her concern “that Sensabaugh posed a threat to the safety of the students and staff.” He sued, raising First Amendment retaliation and municipal liability claims. The Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendants, finding no causal connection between Sensabaugh’s Facebook posts and his termination. A thorough independent investigation preceded Sensabaugh’s termination; that investigation concluded that the misconduct allegations were substantiated in full or in part and that the misconduct supported termination. View "Sensabaugh v. Halliburton" on Justia Law