The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that a school’s communication plan, restricting a parent’s communications with school staff to biweekly in-person meetings with two administrators, did not violate the parent’s First Amendment rights. LF v Lake Washington Sch Dist, Case No. 18-35792 (CA 9, 2020). Although not binding in Michigan, this decision suggests that schools may set reasonable limits on parent communications with school staff.
A parent sent school staff incessant emails. The parent also lodged demeaning insults and accusations during in-person conversations with school staff. Pointing to the parent’s “unproductive communication pattern” and unprofessional tone, the school imposed the communication plan. The plan advised the parent not to email school staff because they would not respond. The plan did not apply to emergency situations and did not prohibit the parent from attending regular parent activities at school. The parent refused to abide by the plan, and the school reduced the meetings from biweekly to monthly.
The parent’s lawsuit alleged that the school’s plan violated his First Amendment rights by prohibiting him from communicating with his children’s teachers and by precluding him from challenging the school’s decisions.
The U.S. Supreme Court holds that members of the public do not have a First Amendment right to force the government to listen to their views. Moreover, the First Amendment does not require the government to respond to public views. Applying that precedent, the Ninth Circuit ruled:
Because government entities . . . do not have to listen to parents’ views, it is not a constitutional violation to require that parents, if they wish to be heard, communicate only with particular staff members or do so only at a specified time and place. And because the government is under no constitutional obligation to respond to such views, there is no violation where a government entity such as the District ignores (or threatens to ignore) communications from outside the specified channels.
The Ninth Circuit further ruled that even if the communication plan restricted the parent’s speech, it was not a First Amendment violation because the school operated as a nonpublic forum. Accordingly, speech restrictions in that forum only need to be reasonable and not an effort to suppress the speaker’s viewpoint.
This decision provides helpful ideas about developing permissible communication plans to address excessive parent communication. Such a plan should allow emergency communications and permit parents to attend regular parent activities at school.
School officials should note that this decision did not involve students with disabilities eligible for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires parents to have the opportunity to “meaningfully participate” in their student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) process. Accordingly, school officials should ensure that communication plans for IDEA-eligible students permit parents to exercise IDEA parental rights and comply with that student’s IEP.