KILLION v. FRANKLIN REGIONAL SCHOOL DIST. No. CIV. A. 99-731.
136 F.Supp.2d 446 (2001)
Joanne KILLION, parent and natural guardian of Zachariah Paul, a minor, Plaintiff, v. FRANKLIN REGIONAL SCHOOL DISTRICT, Franklin Regional Board of School Directors, Betty Buford, Russell Porter, Deborah Good, Marie Byatt, Larry Newman, Michael Gigliotti, Reberta Cook, W.H. Milligan, Lee Reick, as Superintendent of Franklin Regional School District, Richard Plutto, as principal of Franklin Regional High School, Thomas Graham, as assistant principal of Franklin Regional High School, and Robert Bozzuto, Athletic Director of Franklin Regional High School, Defendants.
United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania.
March 22, 2001.
John W. Smart, Andrews & Price, Pittsburgh, PA, for defendants.
ZIEGLER, District Judge.
Pending before the court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, pursuant to Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Plaintiffs, Zachariah Paul (a minor) and Joanne Killion (Paul's parent and natural guardian), commenced this Section 1983 civil action alleging violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and due process violations. For the following reasons, plaintiffs' motion for "partial summary judgment" will be granted, and defendants' motion for summary judgment will be denied.
The facts are not in dispute and can be summarized as follows. Plaintiff, Zachariah Paul ("Paul"), was a student at Franklin Regional High School during the 1998-1999 school year. During March of 1999, Paul, apparently angered by a denial of a student parking permit and the imposition of various rules and regulations for members of the track team (Paul was a member), compiled a "Top Ten" list about the athletic director, Robert Bozzuto. The Bozzuto list contained, inter alia, statements regarding Bozzuto's appearance, including the size of his genitals.
Several weeks later, several individuals found copies of the Bozzuto Top Ten list in the Franklin Regional High School teachers'
On or about May 3, 1999, Paul was called to a meeting with Richard Plutto (principal), Thomas Graham (assistant principal), and Robert Bozzuto (athletic director). Upon questioning, Paul admitted that he had created the contents of the Top Ten list, and that he had e-mailed it to the home computers of several friends from his home computer; however, Paul steadfastly denied bringing the list on school grounds. Plutto or Graham instructed Paul to bring a copy of the original e-mail message the next day. Paul agreed and was allowed to return to his class.
The next day, shortly before Paul was scheduled to leave for a track meet, Plutto called Paul to his office. Paul, apparently anticipating that he might be disciplined, called his mother, who arrived shortly thereafter. Paul and Mrs. Killion went to the administrative offices where they met with Graham and Bozzuto. Graham and Bozzutto showed Mrs. Killion the Top Ten list, asked if she had seen it, and informed her that Paul was being suspended for ten days because the list contained offensive remarks about a school official, was found on school grounds, and that Paul admitted creating the list. Graham further informed Mrs. Killion that Paul could not participate in any school-related activities, including track and field events during the ten-day suspension. The next day, plaintiffs received a certified letter from Plutto advising them of the ten-day suspension for "verbal/written abuse of a staff member."
On or about May 10, 1999, plaintiffs commenced an action in the Westmoreland County Court of Common Pleas, Pennsylvania, against the School District seeking immediate reinstatement. The parties subsequently entered a settlement agreement wherein plaintiffs agreed to withdraw the complaint in exchange for the School District's agreement to provide Paul with the due process outlined in the Pennsylvania School Code. That evening, at about 10:15 p.m., plaintiffs' counsel received a faxed letter notifying plaintiffs of a suspension hearing the following morning at 9:00 a.m.
On May 12, plaintiffs, Plutto and Graham met for the suspension hearing, which resulted in a ten day suspension. The same day, plaintiffs commenced a civil action in this court seeking a preliminary injunction for First and Fourteenth Amendment violations, and requesting that Paul be allowed to return to school immediately. The parties entered into a consent order which allowed Paul to return to school. The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment.
Summary judgment is appropriate when there are no genuine issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett,
Plaintiffs seek summary judgment contending that defendants violated Paul's First Amendment right of free expression by suspending Paul for speech that was made off school grounds and in the privacy of his home. Plaintiffs further seek a declaration that the school policy at issue is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad because, "[a]bsent a definition of abuse, the policy is capable of unlimited, and unrestricted, number of unconstitutional applications." Pls.' Br. Supp. Mot. Partial Summ. J. at 31. Finally, plaintiffs argue that defendants violated Paul's procedural due process rights as guaranteed by the Pennsylvania School Code.
Defendants seek summary judgment contending that, pursuant to Supreme Court precedent, Paul was properly suspended for violating school policy. Further, defendants argue that qualified immunity protects the administrators because, "[i]n May of 1999, there was no clearly established law that a public school student could not be suspended for the publication and dissemination of a patently offensive, lewd and vulgar e-mail message about a school official, and distributed on school property which had the potential of disrupting school administration." Defs.' Br. Supp. Mot. Summ. J. at 12.
As an initial matter, we note that the parties entered into a consent agreement whereby plaintiffs agreed to dismiss the claims against defendants Plutto, Graham, Bozzuto and Reick in exchange for the District's agreement to "be responsible, as a municipal government entity, for the payment of any and all damages that may be awarded to the plaintiffs as a result of the actions of" these defendants. Pls. Mem. Opp'n Defs.' Mot. Summ. J. at 2. According to plaintiffs, this agreement moots any claims or arguments with respect to qualified immunity and municipal liability. Pls.' Mem. Opp'n Defs.' Mot. Summ. J. at 2. As the parties have resolved these issues, we turn to consider the motions for summary judgment with respect to the asserted Due Process and First Amendment claims.
A. Due Process Violation
Plaintiffs contend that the District violated Paul's rights to procedural due process as provided in 22 Pa.Code §§ 12.6 and 12.8. Section 12.6 provides, in relevant part:
22 Pa.Code § 12.6.
Section 12.8(c) provides:
22 Pa.Code § 12.8.
According to plaintiffs, defendants violated Paul's due process rights in the following manner:
Pls.' Mem. Supp. Mot. Partial Summ. J. at 33-34. Plaintiffs also assert a second due process violation because defendants failed to give plaintiffs more than 12 hours written notice of the charges prior to the May 12 hearing. Thus, the argument continues, defendants have committed a two-fold violation of plaintiffs' state procedural due process rights.
Although defendants have failed to address plaintiffs' due process claim, we find that defendants' act of suspending Paul on May 4 without providing written notice to Paul or his parents prior to the suspension violated Paul's due process rights as set forth in 22 Pa.Code §§ 12.6, 12.8. Courts construing sections 12.6 and 12.8 have held that a school must give written notification of the reasons for the suspension before the informal hearing occurs. See, e.g., Mullane v. Wyalusing Area Sch. Dist., 30 D & C 4th 179, 183 (Pa.Com.Pl.1996); Mifflin County Sch. Dist. v. Stewart, 94 Pa.Cmwlth. 313, 503 A.2d 1012, 1014 (1986).
Here, it is undisputed that defendants failed to provide written notification of the suspension and the reasons for the suspension prior to the informal hearing. Indeed, it was not until Mrs. Killion's midhearing request for a letter detailing the reasons for the suspension that defendants attempted to comply with the writing requirement of Sections 12.6 and 12.8. Given the lack of written notification prior to the suspension, we find that defendants violated Paul's due process rights as set forth in the Pennsylvania School Code.
We do not reach the same conclusion regarding the second hearing and suspension. Plaintiffs allege a due process violation occurred because, "[e]ven after the state court order, defendants gave plaintiff less than 12 hours written notice of the charges prior to the May 12 hearing." Pls.' Mem. Supp. Mot. Partial Summ. J. at 34. Plaintiffs rely on Mifflin County School District v. Stewart, 94 Pa.
The Minnicks' court found that "24 hours is inadequate notice of a disciplinary hearing
Here, however, defendants provided written notice to plaintiffs the night before the second informal hearing. Moreover, the notification informed plaintiffs of the violations that Paul had committed, and provided, in relevant part:
J.A. 117 (emphasis added).
Under the circumstances, given that defendants supplied written notification of possible suspension, plaintiffs' knowledge of the charges for which Paul was to be suspended, and plaintiffs'
B. First Amendment
1. Freedom of Speech
The Supreme Court has decided several cases establishing the framework within which to evaluate the First Amendment claims of public school students, which we will review. In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District,
Several years later in Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser,
Departing from the student autonomy emphasized in Tinker, the Court stressed that the purpose of public education was to "`prepare pupils for citizenship in the Republic.... It must inculcate the habits and manners of civility.'" Id. at 681, 106 S.Ct. 3159 (citations omitted). According to the Court, civility required that "[e]ven the most heated political discourse in a democratic society requires consideration for the personal sensibilities of the other participants and audiences." Id. at 681, 106 S.Ct. 3159. Moreover, in qualifying its holding in Tinker that students do not lose their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate, the Court stressed that "the constitutional rights of students in public school are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings." Id. at 682, 106 S.Ct. 3159. One of the distinctions between adults and children stressed by the Court was the legitimacy of protecting minors from exposure to vulgar language. These twin decisional rules, i.e., the validation of the school's role in teaching civilized behavior and the lesser First Amendment rights of minors, caused the Court to conclude that "schools, as instruments of the state, may determine that the essential lessons of civil, mature conduct cannot be conveyed in a school that tolerates lewd, indecent, or offensive speech and conduct." Id. at 683, 106 S.Ct. 3159.
Finally, in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier,
These decisions reveal that, under Fraser, a school may categorically prohibit lewd, vulgar or profane language on school property. Under Hazelwood, a school may regulate schools — sponsored speech (that is, speech that a reasonable observer would view as the school's own speech) on the basis of any legitimate pedagogical concern. "Speech falling outside of these categories is subject to Tinker's general rule: it may be regulated only if it would substantially disrupt school operations or interfere with the right of others." Saxe v. State Coll. Area Sch. Dist.,
Each of the Supreme Court decisions in this area have considered the regulation of speech that occurs on school grounds. Plaintiffs argue that the relevant speech occurred off school grounds, within the confines of Paul's home, and was subsequently printed and carried on school grounds by other persons. Thus, according to plaintiffs, defendants could not discipline Paul for the list absent exceptional circumstances. Defendants argue that Paul's suspension was appropriate because it was disruptive, lewd and obscene. We consider these arguments below.
a. Substantial Disruption
Although there is limited case law on the issue, courts considering speech that occurs off school grounds have concluded (relying on Supreme Court decisions) that school officials' authority over off-campus expression is much more limited than expression on school grounds. For example, in Emmett v. Kent School District No. 415,
Id. at 1090 (emphasis added).
Similarly, in Beussink v. Woodland R-IV School District,
Finally, in J.S., a Minor v. Bethlehem Area School District,
Id. at 422.
Courts have also applied the Tinker analysis where off-campus speech makes its way to the campus, even if by some other student. See, e.g., Boucher v. School Bd. of the Sch. Dist. of Greenfield,
Although plaintiffs urge that a heightened standard applies because the speech at issue occurred off school grounds, we need not resolve this issue. The overwhelming weight of authority has analyzed student speech (whether on or off campus) in accordance with Tinker. Further, because the Bozzuto list was brought on campus, albeit by an unknown person, Tinker applies.
Applying Tinker and its progeny, we find that Paul's suspension violates the First Amendment because defendants failed to satisfy Tinker's substantial disruption test. First, defendants failed to adduce any evidence of actual disruption. See, e.g., Bystrom, 686 F.Supp. at 1392 (substantial disruption established given classroom disruption after students read nonschool sponsored newspaper); Baker v. Downey City Bd. of Educ.,
Further, we note that the speech at issue was not threatening, and, although upsetting to Bozzuto, did not cause any faculty member to take a leave of absence, as in J.S. Although the intended audience was undoubtedly connected to Franklin Regional High School, the absence of threats or actual disruption lead us to conclude that Paul's suspension was improper. See Emmett, 92 F.Supp.2d at 1090.
Admittedly, Bozzutto, Graham, Plutto and others found the list to be rude, abusive and demeaning. J.A. 26, 44. However, "[d]isliking or being upset by the content of a student's speech is not an acceptable justification for limiting student speech under Tinker." Beussink,
Defendants attempt to support an expectation of disruption defense by arguing that Paul had created similar lists in the past, and had been warned that he would be punished for distributing similar lists in the future. However, defendants have not presented any evidence that Paul's earlier lists had caused disruption which would have supported a belief that substantial disruption would follow from the Bozzuto list. At best, defendants have offered evidence
Further, Paul was never disciplined for the earlier lists. Absent evidence establishing disruption flowing from the earlier lists, defendants have failed to establish there was substantial reason to anticipate a disruption. See, e.g., West v. Derby Unified Sch. Dist. No. 260,
Finally, defendants apparently argue that the Bozzuto list could "impair the administration's ability to appropriately discipline the students." Defs.' Br. Supp. Mot. Summ. J. at 11. We cannot accept, without more, that the childish and boorish antics of a minor could impair the administrators' abilities to discipline students and maintain control. Accord Tinker, 393 U.S. at 508, 89 S.Ct. 733 ("in our system, undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression"); Klein, 635 F.Supp. at 1442 ("The Court cannot accept, however heartfelt it may presently be, [that] the future course of the administration of discipline ... [will] dissolve, willy-nilly, in the face of the digital posturing of this splenetic, bad-mannered little boy.").
b. Lewd, Vulgar or Profane Speech
Our conclusion that no actual disruption or reasonable fear of disruption occurred does not end our inquiry. Defendants also argue that the suspension was appropriate because Paul's speech was lewd and obscene and therefore punishable under Fraser. Plaintiffs rejoin that, "[i]f the Bozzuto list could in fact be considered contraband, sanctionable under Bethel, the defendants['] recourse would be to punish those students who actually brought the offending material to school. But to punish the author for work created outside of school is certainly beyond the First Amendment pale." Pls.' Mem. Supp. Mot. Partial Summ. J. at 29-30 n. 16.
In Fraser, the Court made clear that school officials may punish explicit, indecent, or lewd speech "to make the point to pupils that such speech is wholly inconsistent with the `fundamental values' of public education." 478 U.S. at 686-87, 106 S.Ct. 3159. However, in a concurring opinion, Justice Brennan noted that, "[i]f respondent had given the same speech
Likewise, courts considering lewd and obscene speech occurring off school
Id. at 1052. But Cf. Baker v. Downey City Bd. of Educ.,
Similarly, in Klein v. Smith,
Id. at 1441-42.
Here, defendants argue that Paul's top ten list contained several lewd and vulgar statements, namely: "As stated in previous list, he's just not getting any.... Because of his extensive gut factor, the `man' hasn't seen his own penis in over a decade.... Even if it wasn't for his gut, it would still take a magnifying glass and extensive searching to find it." J.A. 436. Although we agree that several passages from the list are lewd, abusive, and derogatory, we cannot ignore the fact that the relevant speech, like that in Klein and Thomas, occurred within the confines of Paul's home, far removed from any school premises or facilities. Further, Paul was not engaged in any school activity or associated in any way with his role as a student when he compiled the Bozzuto Top Ten list.
Although defendants attempt to rely on Donovan v. Ritchie,
2. Overbreadth and Vagueness
We need not tarry long in addressing plaintiffs' final challenge, as defendants have failed to address the matter. Plaintiffs challenge the Franklin Regional School District's Retaliatory Policy arguing that the policy is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad. An overbroad statute is one that is designed to punish activities that are not constitutionally protected, but which prohibits protected activities as well. See City of Houston v. Hill,
Only a statute that is substantially overbroad may be invalidated on its face. See City of Houston v. Hill,
The policy at issue provides that "it must be clearly understood that if a student verbally or otherwise abuses a staff member, he or she will be immediately suspended from school. It may then be the recommendation of the administration to the Board of School Directors that they indefinitely suspend or expel the student involved." J.A. 105. The policy, however, does not contain a definition of "abuse" and fails to include any specificity or limitations.
Yet, in discerning the reach of the policy, we must consider any limiting constructions placed on the policy by defendants. See Ward v. Rock Against Racism,
Absent any indication by the school district as to how the policy has actually been applied, we conclude that the policy is overbroad because it could be interpreted (and indeed, was interpreted) to prohibit protected speech. Moreover, the policy "does not contain any geographical or contextual limitations; rather, it purports to cover [all "abuse" of teachers whether the "abuse"] ... occurs in a school sponsored assembly, in the classroom, in the hall between classes, or in a playground or athletic facility." Saxe, 240 F.3d at 216; see also Shanley, 462 F.2d at 976. Indeed, the policy could be read (and was read) to cover speech occurring without school premises. In addition, the policy is overbroad because it is not limited to speech that causes substantial disruption or interference with the work of the school, as required by Tinker. See Saxe, 240 F.3d at 216 (same). For these reasons, we conclude that the Retaliatory Policy is unconstitutionally overbroad. Accord Shanley, 462 F.2d at 976 (school policy was overbroad because it "sweeps protected activity wholly outside of the school context along with proscribed activity").
Plaintiffs also argue that the Retaliatory Policy is void because it is unconstitutionally vague. Under the "void for vagueness doctrine," a governmental regulation may be declared void if it fails to give a person adequate warning that his conduct is prohibited or if it fails to set out adequate standards to prevent arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement. See Chicago v. Morales,
As with the overbreadth challenge, we conclude that the policy is unconstitutionally vague. We do not read plaintiffs' brief to argue that the policy was too vague for him to understand. Rather, plaintiffs apparently rely on the second prong, i.e., unrestricted delegation of power to school officials. Under the policy, school officials can only discipline students for "abuse" directed towards a teacher or administrator. However, to determine what constitutes "abuse," punishable under the policy, one must make a subjective reference. Admittedly, "some statements might be seen as universally ... [abusive; however], different people find different things abusive." Dambrot v. Central Michigan Univ.,
The Supreme Court has held that, "[g]iven the school's need to be able to impose disciplinary sanctions for a wide range of unanticipated conduct disruptive of the educational process, the school disciplinary rules need not be as detailed as a criminal code which imposes criminal sanctions." Fraser, 478 U.S. at 686, 106 S.Ct. 3159. However, the Court did not hold that school rules could be devoid of any detail, as here. For the reasons discussed, we find that defendants' Retaliatory Policy is unconstitutionally overbroad and vague.
An appropriate order will follow.
AND NOW, this ____ day of March, 2001, after consideration of the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, pursuant
IT IS ORDERED that the motion (doc. no. 27) of plaintiffs, Joanne Killion and Zachariah Paul, shall be and hereby is granted.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the motion (doc. no. 31) of defendants shall be and hereby is denied.
IT IS FINALLY ORDERED that the court shall hold oral argument on, ___, 2001, at 10:00 a.m. with respect to money damages and counsel fees incurred by plaintiffs.
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