Tuesday, May 2, 2006
Student Athletes Had Right to Petition for Coach’s Firing—Court
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
High school student athletes have a First Amendment right to criticize a coach’s methods and actions and to petition to have the coach replaced, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
The panel reinstated a suit by eight members of a high school basketball team in Clatskanie, Ore., northwest of Portland. The eight, who were suspended from the team, may be entitled to damages if they can prove that the suspensions were based solely on their exercise of the right to petition, Judge Raymond C. Fisher wrote for the Court of Appeals.
The team members said they were no longer willing to play for varsity basketball coach Jeff Baughman because he questioned players’ sexual orientation, physically intimidated them, and yelled and swore. After he told the players that he would quit if they wanted him to, the players held a meeting off school grounds and all but one of them—Baughman’s son—signed the petition declaring their desire “to formally request the immediate resignation” of the coach.
Prior to the next game, the plaintiffs said in affidavits, they were told by school officials that their complaints would be investigated, but that they were told that no action could be immediately taken. At that point, all but one of the petition signers refused to board the team bus to the game and were replaced by junior varsity players.
The next day, the players were suspended from the team by the school principal, who later issued a statement saying they had “forfeited their membership in the Clatskanie varsity basketball team,” leading to the lawsuit.
U.S. District Judge Ancer L. Haggerty ruled that the school district was entitled to summary judgment because the students’ problems with the coach did not involve a matter of public concern, and alternatively because they had “substantially and materially interfered with a school activity.”
But Fisher, writing for the Ninth Circuit, said the judge erred in importing the “matter of public concern” criterion, part of the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence regarding First Amendment rights of public employees, into the school activities context.
The proper test, Fisher agreed, is the second test used by the district judge, that of substantial interference with a school activity, based on Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) 393 U.S. 503. That case involved students whom the court said were allowed to wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam War, because those armbands did not interfere with daily school operations, or hurt the learning environment for other students.
Fisher agreed with the district judge that by refusing to get on the bus, the students disrupted a school activity. But that does not entitle the district to summary judgment, he said, because Haggerty’s erroneous ruling that the plaintiffs had no free speech rights at all left unresolved the question of whether they were disciplined solely for not getting on the bus, or whether their having criticized the coach and petitioned for his removal was a “substantial or motivating factor.”
Judges Ronald M. Gould and Carlos T. Bea joined in the opinion.
The case is Pinard v. Clatskanie School District 6J, 04-35574.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company