Ashley J. Puchalski, firstname.lastname@example.org, (412) 594-5509
McNett v. Jefferson-Morgan Sch. Dist., 2:21-CV-01064-RJC, 2021 WL 5505849, at *1 (W.D. Pa. Nov. 23, 2021) (A parent’s challenge to being banned from school events for disruptive behavior found not to have violated his constitutional rights).
This case arose from Jefferson-Morgan School District’s decision to indefinitely ban a parent from entering school property and attending school-sponsored events due to a pattern of inappropriate behavior at school sporting events.
Virgil McNett’s son was a member of the high school football team. In 2018 McNett threatened to “kick [the head coach, Aaron Giorgi’s] a–!” after his son was removed from a football game. Subsequently, the parent attended a meeting with the school district’s Athletic Director and Superintendent to discuss his past behavior and the conduct that is expected of individuals attending school-sponsored events. At a football game following that meeting, McNett became upset after a play and directed profanity toward the Superintendent who also was in attendance. McNett also was removed from an away football game during the 2019 football season because of his inappropriate behavior as a spectator. Finally, in September 2020, McNett went to pick up his son after an away football game. While McNett’s son and his teammates were exiting school buses, McNett paced around the buses in an intimidating manner looking for the head football coach. As the students and coaching staff exited the buses, McNett yelled at the coach and called for his resignation.
Because of McNett’s behavior, characterized as “[b]ullying, intimidation, physical or verbal aggression, and the repeated use of profanity,” the Superintendent notified McNett that he was prohibited from being on school property or attending school-sponsored events. It also indicated that the ban would be reviewed during the 2021-2022 school year. However, McNett was informed via e-mail in August 2021 that his request for the ban to be lifted was denied. Despite the ban remaining in place, the parties were able to reach agreements for McNett to attend certain school-sponsored events upon request.
McNett subsequently filed a complaint against the school district asserting defamation and claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for purported violations of his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights under the United States Constitution, and requesting injunctive relief. The court determined that the school district’s ban of McNett was necessary to maintain tranquility and order at school events and was constitutionally permissible.
McNett asserted that he was retaliated against by exercising his First Amendment right of free speech. In order to plead a retaliation claim under the First Amendment, a plaintiff must prove that (1) they engaged in constitutionally protected conduct; (2) that they experienced retaliatory action that is sufficient enough to deter an ordinary person from exercising their constitutional right; and (3) there is a causal link between the constitutionally-protected conduct and the retaliatory action.
In rejecting McNett’s claim, the court observed that the right to free speech is not limitless and the government is not powerless to protect against disruptive conduct, including disruptive speech, in public places such as schools that require peace, quiet, and tranquility to carry out their functions. The court noted that “[w]hile the plaintiff would have the Court believe he was only acting in the best interests of his children, unfortunately for him, the record is rich with witnesses and written evidence of what can only be described as truly outrageous behavior.” Further, because there was an objectively reasonable basis for the ban imposed on McNett, the court did not believe that the evidence proved that there was a causal connection between any protected speech and the school district decision to ban McNett from school events.
The court’s decision in McNettis instructive for any school district dealing with parents who act inappropriately to school administration, staff, or students while on school property or at school functions. First, the case confirms that a school district is within its constitutional bounds to limit access to parents who conduct themselves inappropriately at school events. Second, the school district in this case adopted a reasonably progressive response to the inappropriate conduct. The administration provided the parent with multiple warnings about his behavior. Additionally, even after the ban was instituted, school officials remained flexible and made exceptions that allowed the parent to attend specific school events upon request. Such actions reinforced the purpose of the school’s ban of the parent as avoiding disruption instead of as retaliation for critical speech.
For more information on this, contact Ashley Puchalski at email@example.com.
March 03, 2022
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