Tenth Circuit Tells College Administrator That Ordering A Student To Stop Talking About An Instructor Clearly Violates The First Amendment
from the how-could-you-seriously-think-otherwise? dept
The First Amendment applies to school students. This is something courts seem to have particular difficulty drilling into the heads of school officials and administrators. Yes, their rights are somewhat limited due to their age and/or time and place restrictions, but they are closer to “fully respected” than “nonexistent” — the latter of which appears to be the default assumption for far too many educational entities.
Schools hope allegations of “disruption” will salvage their rights violations. But in far too many cases, the asserted disruption was localized solely in the minds of the rights violators, resulting in them having to continue facing lawsuits over their actions, rather than having complaints against them judiciously wished away into the qualified immunity cornfield.
Such is the case here in legal action involving a college and its violation of a student’s rights. (via Volokh Conspiracy) In this case, a student, who dropped a class because she was unhappy with her instructor, was subjected to discipline solely because she (very quietly) made her unhappiness with this professor known.
The plaintiff, Rowan Thompson, has an eye condition that makes her sensitive to light. In one class, taught by Dr. Megan Lazorski, avoiding aggravating this condition meant sitting in one of the first three rows. For the most part, Thompson was able to use this option. But in two instances, when she arrived late, seats up front were no longer available. Thompson chose to sit on the floor, which apparently irritated her instructor. In the second instance — with no other usable seats available — Dr. Lazorski gave Thompson this option: sit in an available seat or leave the class. Thompson left. Then she dropped the class.
She also sought mediation of her dispute over seating. The mediators asked her to submit a review of Dr. Lazorski, utilizing an online form for evaluations and class ratings. Thompson discovered she could no longer do this through the college website’s portal since she was no longer listed as a student of Lazorki’s.
Because the only option the mediator provided wasn’t available to her, Thompson emailed her fellow students, asking them to submit their own reviews of Lazorski’s class. This is taken from the Tenth Circuit Appeals Court decision [PDF]:
Hello everyone, I’m Rowan- some of you may know me as the goth girl who sat on the floor in class. For those who don’t know, I came late to class a couple of times and sat on the floor. It angered the professor enough that I was asked to leave class on the last occasion. A few weeks later, after a mediation attempt between the dean of chemistry and the professor, I had to drop the class to stop further confrontation- over sitting on the floor.
I have heard so many of you say how horrible a time you’re having in this class, that there are some bits that are ridiculous or downright unreasonable. You shouldn’t have to suffer through a class, especially one that is required, and this is not what college is supposed to be like. College is supposed to make us feel excited about our futures and finally learn what we are interested in, not ditch class because we know we won’t learn anything. You don’t need to keep your complaints and troubles private; this is what the evaluations are for. They’re online; the link to fill them out appears when you log into Blackboard, they take only a couple of minutes, are anonymous, and the more detail is said the better. Every issue you’ve had, every complaint? This is when the faculty and university is listening and wants to hear them. Students, including myself, who have dropped the class won’t be able to fill out an evaluation- our voices cannot be heard unless we speak to the deans directly, but I know for a fact that many are afraid to speak face-to-face.
Please, take the few minutes to review this chemistry class and be honest- make the faculty listen to you so that this class can change for the better. If not for yourself, than for those who have had to drop the class, feeling worthless and stupid, or for students who will have to take this class after you. Hang in there- you’re almost done and then you can leave this semester behind you! ? ?
This plea for action on her behalf (and on behalf of other students who may have been treated unfairly or were too intimidated to bring their complaints directly to the dean) resulted in this extreme overreaction by the college’s administrators:
On April 25, Thompson received a letter from [Associate Director of Student Conduct Thomas] Ragland informing her that “the Dean of Students Office received reports that [Thompson] may have violated provisions of the Student Code of Conduct”; that these reports concerned “the disagreement between [Thompson] and Dr. Lazorski”; that, specifically, Thompson’s email to her former classmates “may have violated the Student Code of Conduct”; that Thompson had to meet with Ragland; and that Thompson was subject to a “No Contact order” restricting her from communicating with Dr. Lazorski. Ragland’s letter specifically cautioned: “Further, due to the persistent communication and disruption your communication is about Dr. Lazorski (sic), you are restricted from discussing Dr. Lazorski with any student in the CHE 1800 course or any of Dr. Lazorski’s classes, as this would be a violation of the this No Contact Directive (sic).”
There’s your prior restraint. And there are the baseless accusations about “persistent communication” and “disruption,” neither of which the school was able to provide evidence of when defending against this lawsuit. Going back to Tinker (1969) and tracing procedural history forward, the Tenth Circuit says denying qualified immunity is a no-brainer. This right is clearly established.
We think the foregoing precedents clearly establish that Thompson’s complaint adequately states a First Amendment violation. Indeed, this case is, at least at the present stage of the proceedings, an easy one. Thompson’s speech was restricted. And there is no apparent legitimate basis for this restriction.
As for the argument that school “disruption” justified Ragland’s prior restraint, the court is having none of it.
He relies in part on the disruption caused to the two classes Thompson attended when she sat on the floor. Those two classes were in early February 2019. Ragland’s letter to Thompson was in late April. In the interim (sometime after the mediation on March 18) Thompson sent her email to fellow students. A reasonable factfinder could readily determine that the discipline was imposed on Thompson because of the email, not just because of the two classroom incidents that caused minimal disruption and had apparently been resolved by Thompson’s dropping the class.
Nor was Thompson’s email disruptive.
The other possible cause of disruption was Thompson’s email to fellow students. But there is no evidence of any disruption caused by the email; on the contrary, the complaint alleges that there was no disruption to the work of MSU, and none was mentioned in Ragland’s letter imposing the discipline. Nor could disruption be reasonably anticipated. Thompson merely sent a respectful, noninflammatory email expressing her dissatisfaction with a professor’s performance and encouraging her former classmates to submit “honest” reviews about the class and the professor.
The court’s harshest criticism is reserved for that particular argument:
What Ragland argues in his appellate brief is remarkable. He claims that Thompson’s “efforts to encourage other students to give negative evaluations would disrupt Dr. Lazorski’s career and her relationship with her students, as well as [MSU’s] efforts in employing faculty to conduct the class.” […] If we were to accept that rationale, there would be no First Amendment protection for criticism of government employees.
This reverses the lower court’s decision, which inexplicably sided with Ragland and his argument that criticism of government employees isn’t protected speech. The administrator loses his qualified immunity and will have to continue defending himself against Thompson’s lawsuit. This doesn’t mean the addition of more facts to the case might result in a delayed win for Ragland (although, given what’s detailed here, I don’t see how he possibly walks away from this), but the onus is now on the administrator to defend his apparent rights violation, rather than simply claim he had no idea ordering a student to stop talking about an instructor might violate the student’s rights.