Tag: student speech

School Officials Can’t Censor Student Speech, Not Even Religious Speech

Everyone knows that students have First Amendment rights, that the Constitution proverbially doesn’t stop at the schoolhouse door.  Yet students in the Plano Independent School District in Texas (against whose speech code Cato previously filed a brief) were prohibited from handing out pencils with messages such as “Jesus is the reason for the season” and “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” or sending holiday cards to retirement homes that said “Merry Christmas.”

The students, through their parents, sued the district on First Amendment grounds, and were successful through a Fifth Circuit panel ruling that “qualified immunity,” a doctrine that prevents government officials from being held personally liable under certain circumstances for violating constitutional rights, did not apply in this case.  The panel’s holding is as important as it is unremarkable: School officials have fair warning that viewpoint-based discrimination against student speech during non-curricular activities violates the First Amendment.  The government certainly cannot do so simply because the speech happens to be religious.

The Fifth Circuit en banc (as a whole) vacated the panel’s decision, however, and decided to rehear the case.  Cato has filed a brief supporting the students and their parents; not only is it settled law that students have the right to free speech in public schools, but school officials should be held liable for violating those rights on the basis of the content of that speech.

Indeed, if the First Amendment means anything, it is that the government cannot suppress speech based solely on its content.  More specifically, when an area of the law is “clearly established,” officials cannot escape liability under the doctrine of qualified immunity.  Qualified immunity simply doesn’t apply to public school officials who suppress speech in a non-curricular setting merely because the school district points to some legal disagreement in a dissent, concurrence, or other non-binding judicial opinion that disagrees with settled doctrine regarding viewpoint-based discrimination against student speech.

The en banc Fifth Circuit will hear the case, Morgan v. Swanson, later this spring.  Thanks to legal associate Michael Wilt for his help with the brief and this post.

Even University Presidents Are Bound by the Constitution

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 did not take kindly to that criticism and endeavored to retaliate against Barnes — ignoring longstanding legal precedent, the Valdosta State University Student Handbook (a legally binding contract), and the counsel of fellow administrators.  Zaccari even ordered staff to look into Barnes’s academic records, his medical history, his religion, and his registration with the VSU Access Office!

The district court found that Barnes’s due process rights had indeed been violated and denied Zaccari qualified immunity from liability for his actions. Now on appeal, Cato joined a brief filed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education on behalf of 15 organizations arguing that qualified immunity is inappropriate here given Zaccari’s brazen violation of Barnes’s constitutional rights to free speech and due process.  As stated in the brief, the “desire of some administrators to censor unwanted, unpopular, or merely inconvenient speech on campus is matched by a willingness to seize upon developments in the law that grant them greater leeway to do so.”  The brief thus asks the Eleventh Circuit to affirm the denial of qualified immunity on both First Amendment and due process grounds.

First, the immense importance of constitutional rights on public university campus is due in no small part to the reluctance of school administrators to abide by clearly established law protecting student rights.  Second, Zaccari knew or should have known that his actions violated Barnes’ rights and were illegal retaliation against constitutionally protected speech. 

Qualified immunity is intended to protect public officials who sincerely believe their actions are reasonable and constitutional, not those who willfully and maliciously ignore well known law in a determined effort to deprive another of constitutional rights. A denial of qualified immunity here would vindicate those rights and reinforce school administrators’ obligation to protect and abide by them. 

The case of Barnes v. Zaccari will be heard by the Eleventh Circuit this spring or summer.  Thanks to legal associate Nicholas Mosvick for his help on the brief and with this post.