Justia Communications Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Education Law
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A student approached Professor Laker, claiming that the department chair, Aptekar, had harassed her. The student brought a formal Title IX complaint. An investigator concluded that Aptekar had sexually harassed the student. Aptekar was disciplined but was allowed to remain as department chair for several weeks. Aptekar was later placed on paid leave. Laker claims that the University and certain administrators, including McVey, covered up prior student complaints about Aptekar. In February 2016, various administrators received an e-mail from the student who had originally filed the Title IX complaint, stating she was experiencing stress from continuing to see Aptekar. The University then investigated Laker based on complaints of “inspiring students to come forward to report sexual and racial harassment by Aptekar.” Laker sued, alleging defamation and retaliation The defendants filed an anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) motion to strike, Code of Civil Procedure 425.16. The court of appeal reversed the denial of the motion as to defamation. Statements Laker identified as defamatory were part of the protected activity of the Aptekar investigation. On remand, the trial court is directed to strike certain language and the claims it supports from the retaliation claim: “publishing false and defamatory statements about Laker to punish him for his ongoing efforts to protect SJSU students from sexual harassment by Aptekar, with the intent of scapegoating Laker as the person who had failed to report Aptekar’s misconduct.” View "Laker v. Board of Trustees of the California State University" on Justia Law

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Initiative Petition No. 403 sought to amend the Oklahoma Constitution by adding a new Article 13-C. The proposed article would create the Oklahoma Education Improvement Fund, designed to provide for the improvement of public education in Oklahoma through an additional one-cent sales and use tax. Funds generated by the one-cent tax would be distributed to public school districts, higher education institutions, career and technology centers, and early childhood education providers for certain educational purposes outlined in the proposed article. Additionally, a percentage of the funds would be used to provide a $5,000.00 pay raise to all public school teachers. Opponents challenged the initiative, arguing it violated the one general subject rule of Art. 24, sec. 1 of the Oklahoma Constitution. Upon review, the Supreme Court held that Initiative Petition No. 403 did not violate the one general subject rule and was legally sufficient for submission to the people of Oklahoma. View "IN RE INITIATIVE PETITION NO. 403 STATE QUESTION NO. 779" on Justia Law

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While Bikkina was in a Ph.D. program at the University of Tulsa, Mahadevan, Bikkina’s first dissertation advisor and supervisor, repeatedly charged that Bikkina falsified data in published papers and plagiarized Mahadevan’s work. In each case, the University found no wrong doing by Bikkina, but that Mahadevan had violated the University‘s harassment policies. Bikkina completed his Ph.D. and began working at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). Mahadevan contacted Bikkina‘s superiors to state that Bikkina had falsified data, then made a presentation at LBNL and told Bikkina‘s colleagues that Bikkina had published a paper using false data., Bikkina filed a complaint for damages against Mahadevan, who filed an anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) motion to strike under Code of Civil Procedure 425.16. Mahadevan argued that Bikkina improperly sought to chill public discourse on carbon sequestration and its impacts on global warming. Mahadevan asserted that his statements concerned important public issues and constituted protected speech. The court of appeal affirmed denial of the motion, finding that Mahadevan had not engated in protected conduct, even if the conduct arose from protected activity, Bikkina’s claims have sufficient merit to survive a motion to strike. View "Bikkina v. Mahadevan" on Justia Law

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Munroe was an English teacher, generally considered to be effective and competent. The District granted Munroe tenure in 2010. In 2009, Munroe began a blog, using the name “Natalie M.” She did not expressly identify where she worked or lived, the name of the school or the names of her students. According to Munroe, her blog was meant to be viewed by friends that she had asked to subscribe. There were fewer than 10 subscribed readers, but no password was required for access. Most of the blog posts were unrelated to her school or work. Some postings included complaints about students, her working conditions, and related matters. The District administration first learned of Munroe’s blog in February 2011 when a reporter from a local newspaper began to ask questions; students apparently were commenting on social media.” Munroe was placed on paid suspension and, later, fired. The District had no regulation specifically prohibiting a teacher from blogging on his or her own time. The Third Circuit affirmed dismissal of Munroe’s 42 U.S.C. 1983 suit; under the Pickering balancing test, Munroe’s speech, in both effect and tone, was sufficiently disruptive so as to diminish any legitimate interest in its expression, and did not rise to the level of constitutionally protected expression. View "Munroe v. Central Bucks Sch. Dist." on Justia Law

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The Foundation, a non-profit corporation, acts as a conduit for tax exempt gifts to benefit UCLA. Luskin, a director, pledged $40 million to support construction of a UCLA campus conference center. Save Westwood sought to rescind the donation and to require the Regents of the University of California to pay the city taxes allegedly owing, alleging that the Foundation is “mandated by its by-laws and incorporation documents to exclusively fund charitable undertakings,” that this limitation “applies to the financing of the construction of buildings for exempt purposes,” and that the Luskin grant was applied toward activities that exceed the Foundation’s powers. The defendants filed an anti-SLAPP motion, Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16. Save Westwood argued that neither free speech rights, nor rights of petition were implicated because the claims sought enforcement of the Regents’s fiduciary duties, citing an exemption for public interest lawsuits. It voluntarily dismissed Luskin and the Foundation. The trial court granted the motion to strike. The court of appeal affirmed, noting that claims against Luskin were based on letters about the donation and constructon, which constituted an exercise of free speech on a matter of public interest. The Foundation’s pledge toward the conference center was also an exercise of free speech. Neither Luskin nor the Foundation was a governmental entity, so their actions cannot be “an illegal expenditure or waste.” They owed no mandatory duty to avoid donating funds in a manner that might jeopardize the Foundation’s tax exempt status. View "Save Westwood Vill. v. Luskin" on Justia Law

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The Educational Rate Program, a subsidy program authorized by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, is implemented by the FCC, which established USAC, a private non-profit corporation, to administer the Program. USAC provides subsidies to eligible school districts for the cost of telecommunication services. FCC regulations require that providers offer schools the “lowest corresponding price” (LCP) for their services: the “lowest price that a service provider charges to non-residential customers who are similarly situated to a particular school, library, or library consortium for similar services.” Heath operates a business that audits telecommunications bills and was retained by Wisconsin school districts. Heath found that certain schools paid much higher rates than others for the same services. As a result, many districts did not receive the benefit of LCP and the government paid subsidies greater than they should have been. Heath informed Wisconsin Bell of the discrepancy, but it refused to provide the more favorable pricing. Heath also learned of an even lower price charged to the Wisconsin Department of Administration (DOA). Heath filed a qui tam lawsuit. The government declined to intervene. The district court dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, finding that the public disclosure bar applied and that Heath was not saved by the original source exception, because the DOA pricing was on its website. The Seventh Circuit reversed, stating that the claim was not based on the DOA website information and that Heath was not an opportunist plaintiff who did not contribute significant information. View "Heath v. WI Bell, Inc." on Justia Law

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Craig self-published a book of adult relationship advice, “It’s Her Fault,” in which he discussed sexually provocative themes and used sexually explicit terms. Craig’s employer, a school district, learned of the book and terminated his employment because of it. Craig sued under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging retaliation for engaging in speech protected by the First Amendment. The district court dismissed, reasoning that “It’s Her Fault” did not address a matter of public concern and was not entitled to First Amendment protection. The Seventh Circuit affirmed on an alternative basis. The book deals with adult relationship dynamics, an issue with which many members of the public are concerned, but the school district’s interest in ensuring the effective delivery of counseling services outweighed Craig’s speech interest. The district reasonably predicted that “It’s Her Fault” would disrupt the learning environment at Craig’s school because some students, learning of the book’s hypersexualized content would be reluctant to seek Craig’s advice. View "Craig v. Rich Twp. High Sch. Dist." on Justia Law

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Bovee contends that his sister, Broom, violated the due process clause when, in her role as guidance counselor at his children’s school, she criticized his parenting methods and called him a “bad father.” Bovee claims that this alienated his children’s affections, violating his fundamental liberty interest in familial relations. The district court dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The Seventh Circuit held that the dismissal should have been on the merits. “The suit is about words, and only words.” Bovee’s lawyer conceded that Broom has not taken any official act adverse to his interests. Defamation, words not accompanied by any other official action, does not violate the due process clause.View "Bovee v. Broom" on Justia Law

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Michigan’s 2012 Public Act 53 provides: “A public school employer’s use of public school resources to assist a labor organization in collecting dues or service fees from wages of public school employees is a prohibited contribution to the administration of a labor organization,” so that unions must collect their own membership dues from public-school employees, rather than have the schools collect those dues via payroll deductions. The Act does not bar public employers other than schools from collecting membership dues for unions who represent their employees. Unions and union members challenged the Act under the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause. The district court entered a preliminary injunction barring enforcement. The Sixth Circuit reversed, quoting the Supreme Court: “The First Amendment prohibits government from ‘abridging the freedom of speech’; it does not confer an affirmative right to use government payroll mechanisms for the purpose of obtaining funds for expression.” The court further reasoned that there is a legitimate interest in support of the Act’s classification; the legislature could have concluded that it is more important for the public schools to conserve their limited resources for their core mission than it is for other state and local employers. View "Bailey v. Callaghan" on Justia Law

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K.A., a fifth-grade student, attempted to distribute, before the start of class, an invitation to a children’s Christmas party at her church. Students were normally allowed to distribute invitations to birthday parties, Halloween parties, and similar events during non-instructional time. The teacher told K.A. that the principal would have to approve the flyer. The principal later notified K.A.’s father that the superintendent had not approved the flyer, based on a policy concerning events not related to the school. Her father filed suit, alleging that the school district had violated K.A.’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The district court, applying the Supreme Court’s reasoning in Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), and finding no evidence that distribution of the invitations would threaten a “substantial disruption‖ of the school environment or interfere with the rights of others,” granted preliminary injunctive relief. The Third Circuit affirmed, stating that the original policy and subsequent revisions were broader than allowed under Tinker and its progeny, which state that student expression can be regulated only if it causes disruption or interferes with the rights of others, or if it falls into a narrow exception. View "K. A. v. Pocono Mountain Sch. Dist." on Justia Law