Thursday, November 12, 2009

Federal Appeals Court sides with school board in First Amendment dispute

The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit this morning sided with a school board in a dispute between parents of student football players on one side and the school district and football coach on the other.

In Lowery v. Jefferson County Board of Education, the high school football coach dismissed the plaintiffs' children from the team for questioning his leadership. The parents of the students made appeals to various school officials. Unsatisfied, the parents requested to speak to the board of education about the incident. In particular, one of the parents asked the board to speak at the next board meeting.

The Board of Education had a policy allowing individual members of the public to address the board for up five minutes so long as the address was not frivolous, harassing, or repetitive.

The Board granted the request of the parent. An attorney representing the parents addressed the board and apparently criticized Board staff and threatened legal action, among other things. The parents' request was still not granted.

Undeterred, the parents requested another meeting with the board of education. This time, the Board denied the request--finding it to be repetitive and harassing.

The parents sued, claiming that the district, acting under color of state law, deprived the students and the parents of their First Amendment rights by dismissing the students from the team and for refusing to allow the parents to speak at the second Board meeting.

The District Court found the Board not liable, and ordered the parents to pay the Board's attorney fees. The parents appealed.

The appellate court upheld the District Court, holding that the school board meeting was a limited public forum and that the Board's denial of the parent's opportunity to speak at second Board meeting was a time, place and manner
manner restriction that was content-neutral, narrowly tailored to serve a
significant governmental interest, left open ample alternative channels for
communication of the information.

The appeals court did, however, reverse the award of attorney fees to the Board, finding that this case did not warrant such an award.

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