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Second Circuit Denies Connecticut Student's §1983 Claim against School Officials

Second Circuit Denies Connecticut Student's §1983 Claim against School Officials

by Derek Gilna

The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has upheld a district court order granting summary judgment to public school officials in Burlington, Connecticut, in which student Avery Donniger had claimed her First Amendment and equal protection rights had been violated. She had sought relief when school officials had prohibited her from running for Senior Class secretary in response to an off-campus internet blog she authored.

In deciding the case, the court ruled that Thomas v. Board of Education, 607 F.2d 1043 (2d Cir. 1979), was not applicable to her set of facts, where plaintiff had urged that Thomas stood for the proposition that "off campus speech could not be the subject of school discipline."

Plaintiff had attempted to schedule an event called "Jamfest," an annual battle-of-the-bands concert at Lewis S. Mills High School (LMHS), which could not be held in the auditorium due to the inability of the faculty supervisor to attend. The disgruntled students, including plaintiff, "sent a mass email alerting various LMHS parents, students, and others that 'the Central Office (had) decided that the Student Council could not hold ... Jamfest' and (urged) them to 'contact the central office...’" The ensuing controversy caused school officials to prevent plaintiff from accepting her nomination for Senior Class Secretary. Her mother filed an action on her behalf in Connecticut Superior Court asserting claims under 42 USC 1983.

The court found that "While students do not 'shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate, Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist, 393 US 503, 506 (1969), the constitutional rights of students in public school 'are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings,...[and] must be applied in a manner consistent with the 'special characteristics of the school environment." The court considered whether the school officials would be protected by qualified immunity, stating "the court must decide whether the right at issue was 'clearly established' at the time of [the] defendant's alleged misconduct," and noted that Supreme Court precedent does not necessarily "insulate" students from discipline for speech- related activity occurring away from school property..," and found qualified immunity appropriate.

The court noted that plaintiff's damages were minimal, except for her being barred from running for office; she was not suspended or disciplined in any other fashion. The Court also stated that "we do not conclude in any way that school administrators are immune from First Amendment scrutiny when they react to student speech by limiting students' participation in extracurricular activities..." but found school officials response appropriate in this instance. See: Doninger v. Niehoff, 527 F.3d 41 (2nd Cir., 2008).

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Related legal case

Doninger v. Niehoff