Tag: student rights

The Constitution Still Applies on College Campuses

Few could imagine a more troubling free speech and due process case than that of Hayden Barnes. Barnes, a student at Valdosta State University in Georgia, peacefully protested the planned construction of a $30 million campus parking garage that was the pet project of university president Ronald Zaccari. A “personally embarrassed” Zaccari didn’t take kindly to that criticism and vowed to retaliate.

Ignoring longstanding legal precedent, the Valdosta State University Student Handbook (a legally binding contract), and the counsel of fellow administrators, Zaccari ordered staff to look into Barnes’s academic records, his medical history, his religion, and his registration with the VSU Access Office. The federal district court found that Barnes’s due process rights had been violated and denied Zaccari qualified immunity from liability for his actions, but also interpreted Barnes’s First Amendment claim narrowly and sharply reduced his award of attorney’s fees.

In the first appeal of this case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit (decided in 2012), Cato joined a brief filed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education on behalf of 15 organizations arguing that qualified immunity was inappropriate given Zaccari’s brazen violation of Barnes’s constitutional rights to free speech and due process. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the denial of qualified immunity, restating that malicious public officials aren’t entitled to special protections when they clearly violate the rights of another.

Now again before the Eleventh Circuit on the question of damages, Barnes is appealing the district court’s narrow interpretation of his First Amendment claim and the way it handled attorney’s fees. Cato has again joined with FIRE and numerous other groups on a brief supporting the full vindication of Barnes’s freedom of speech.

In this latest brief, we argue that the district court’s ruling threatens to encourage further First Amendment violations by inexplicably letting the defendants off on lesser claims (which weren’t even pled)—even though Barnes’s complaint clearly set forth detailed allegations of First Amendment-violating retaliation. We also argue that the district court erroneously applied a severe across-the-board reduction of its attorney’s fees award, even though that amount was supposed to address costs already deducted from the total. The court even granted reverse attorney’s fees for some of the defendants who were held not liable, going so far as calling those claims frivolous solely because they were unsuccessful.

The Eleventh Circuit should rework the attorney’s fees award, especially given the incalculable public benefit derived from such suits. Students who stand up for their constitutional rights are rare, and imposing unfavorable fee awards will only make it more difficult for them to secure strong representation. (Barnes’s counsel is the renowned First Amendment lawyer, and friend of Cato, Robert Corn-Revere.) While the district court did acknowledge that Hayden Barnes’s First Amendment rights were violated, its remedy consisted of half-hearted half-measures  We hope that the Eleventh Circuit corrects that mistake, sending university officials the loud, clear message that constitutional protections don’t stop at the edge of campus.

Due Process Stops at the Campus Gates?

People in the D.C. area maye be familiar with the tragic tale of Fairfax teacher Sean Lanigan, who was falsely accused of sexual molestation, resulting in termination and a destroyed reputation.  As pointed out by friend of Cato and Cato Supreme Court Review contributor Hans Bader, however, the Department of Education is pushing a policy that would allow for more Sean Lanigans, even in cases not involving anything close to rape or molestation:

If the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has its way, more teachers like him will end up being fired even if they are acquitted by a jury of any wrongdoing.  It sent a letter to school officials on April 4 ordering them to lower the burden of proof they use when determining whether students or staff are guilty of sexual harassment or sexual assault.   According to the Department of Education’s demands, schools must find people guilty if there is a mere 51% chance that they are guilty – a so-called preponderance of the evidence standard.   So if an accused is found not guilty under a higher burden of proof – like the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard that applies in criminal cases – the accused will still be subject to disciplinary action under the lower burden of proof dictated by the Education Department.

As Wendy Kaminer explains, the DoE would also like to strip the accused of their right to cross-examination:

Campus investigations and hearings involving harassment or rape charges are notoriously devoid of concern for the rights of students accused; “kangaroo courts” are common, and OCR ‘s letter seems unlikely to remedy them. Students accused of harassment should not be allowed to confront (or directly question) their accusers, according to OCR, because cross-examination of a complainant “may be traumatic or intimidating.” (Again, elevating the feelings of a complainant over the rights of an alleged perpetrator, who may have been falsely accused, reflects a presumption of guilt.) Students may be represented by counsel in disciplinary proceedings, at the discretion of the school, but counsel is not required, even when students risk being found guilty of sexual assaults (felonies pursuant to state penal laws) under permissive standards of proof used in civil cases, standards mandated by OCR.

Now, it is undoubtedly extraordinarily difficult for a rape victim to face her attacker, but lowering the standards under which someone is judged for that crime and not allowing the accused to question his accuser opens the door to using accusation as a weapon, just as in Lanigan’s case or that of the Duke lacrosse team.  Justice (what lawyers call “due process”) demands, among other things, that both accuser and accused have their day in court, and that there be a presumption of innocence.  It is no more just for an innocent person to be smeared and forever tarnished – if not convicted and imprisoned – than it is to let a guilty man go free.  Indeed, as Blackstone famously said, “Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” 

What’s more, as Foundation for Individual Rights in Education president Greg Lukianoff details, it’s not just accused rapists whose rights are prejudiced under the new OCR policy, but those who make bad jokes:

California State University–Monterey policies state that sexual harassment “may range from sexual innuendoes made at inappropriate times, perhaps in the guise of humor, to coerced sexual relations.” UC Berkeley lists “humor and jokes about sex in general that make someone feel uncomfortable” as harassment. Alabama State University lists “behavior that causes discomfort, embarrassment or emotional distress” in its harassment codes. Iowa State University states that harassment “can range from unwelcome sexual flirtations and inappropriate put-downs of individual persons or classes of people to serious physical abuses such as sexual assault.”

This disconnect between basic principles of free speech and due process creates what Lukianoff calls “a perfect storm for rights violations”:

By making it clear that OCR would be aggressively pursuing harassment claims, by mandating extensive changes to many universities’ due process protections, but not requiring universities to adopt a uniform standard for harassment, OCR has supercharged the power of existing campus speech codes. OCR could have done our nation’s colleges a favor if it required universities to adopt a uniform definition of harassment in the same breath as it required them to aggressively police it.

FIRE has done heroic work in protecting student rights, so you should really read all of Lukianoff’s indictment of the new policy. 

The Department of Education needs to rescind/clarify this mess.  Speech is not a crime, but even the rights of those accused of crimes should not be subordinated to misplaced compassion or political correctness.

A Lesson for Young Journalists, Courtesy of Justice Kennedy

A high school newspaper in Manhattan recently added a new and prestigious editor to its staff: Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.  Adam Liptak of the New York Times reports:

It turns out that Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, widely regarded as one of the court’s most vigilant defenders of First Amendment values, had provided the newspaper, The Daltonian, with a lesson about journalistic independence. Justice Kennedy’s office had insisted on approving any article about a talk he gave to an assembly of Dalton high school students on Oct. 28.

Kathleen Arberg, the court’s public information officer, said Justice Kennedy’s office had made the request to make sure the quotations attributed to him were accurate.

The justice’s office received a draft of the proposed article on Monday and returned it to the newspaper the same day with “a couple of minor tweaks,” Ms. Arberg said. Quotations were “tidied up” to better reflect the meaning the justice had intended to convey, she said.

I’m all for being tidy – and, for all his faults, Kennedy has indeed been friendly to the First Amendment (if not to student speech rights in the “Bong Hits for Jesus” case, Morse v. Frederick) – but public figures don’t usually get to change a story to “better reflect” the intent of their words.

…Frank D. LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center, questioned the school’s approach. “Obviously, in the professional world, it would be a nonstarter if a source demanded prior approval of coverage of a speech,” he said. Even at a high school publication, Mr. LoMonte said, the request for prepublication review sent the wrong message and failed to appreciate the sophistication of high school seniors.

While this is hardly a major scandal – and it’s not unusual for justices to exclude the press entirely from public appearances – Kennedy’s use of a judicial editor’s pen does support the general feeling that students don’t always get a fair shake when it comes to their constitutional rights. As I said about an unrelated case in which Cato filed a brief last week (quoting the landmark Tinker case), students shouldn’t have to “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech… at the schoolhouse gate” – especially when a man charged with protecting those rights comes to talk to them about the importance of law and liberty.

H/T: Jonathan Blanks

The Right to Speak in Non-Government-Approved Ways

School officials denied student Pete Palmer the right to wear a shirt supporting John Edwards’s presidential campaign at his Dallas-area high school. They cited the district’s dress code, which prohibited messages on student clothing except for those that supported school activities or district-approved organizations, clubs or teams.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit agreed with the school district that this was a reasonable “time, place and manner” speech restriction. Applying the test from United States v. O’Brien, the court found that the dress code was content- and viewpoint-neutral, and served an important governmental purpose. Palmer now seeks Supreme Court review, citing seemingly contradictory precedents from the Second and Third Circuits and arguing that the regulation here flies in the face of the protection afforded to student speech by the famous case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.

Cato, joined by the Institute for Justice, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the Christian Legal Society, and the National Association of Evangelicals, filed an amicus brief supporting Palmer’s petition and urging the continued use of Tinker. We argue that the Court should clarify its jurisprudence in this area to stop schools from applying broad restrictions in an attempt to avoid controversy and debate—and thereby threaten the very political and religious speech at the First Amendment’s core.

To prevent the chilling of student speech, the Court should solidify Tinker’s central tenet, reaffirming that so long as speech doesn’t “materially and substantially disrupt” the educational process, students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

The case is Palmer v. Waxahachie Independent School District. The Court will be deciding early in 2010 whether to hear it.