Legal Matters: January 2021
Communicating with parents is an important aspect of any principal’s daily duties. But if the parent-principal relationship unravels, it can trigger a legal clash that pits the rights of schools against a parent’s right to free speech. A key question for federal courts is whether a parent can say anything—no matter how disruptive, confrontational, or threatening—and still claim protection under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause. In this case, the word “parent” encompasses caregivers, relatives, guardians, or others who provide day-to-day supervision of a student.
The Communication Plan
A recent federal circuit court of appeals decision reinforces the power of principals to set boundaries in parent-school communication. Principals spend much of their time carefully listening to parent concerns, trying to find common ground, and making sure parents know that their concerns have been understood. In this case, a father from Washington state went too far.
The three-judge panel ruled in favor of district staff and administrators, who created and enforced a communication plan designed to limit the father’s unproductive and relentless communications with school staff. The father, referred to as L.F., was upset about how his two daughters were being educated.
The staff claimed he wrote incessant emails accusing them of wrongdoing, used insults, and made unrealistic demands in an aggressive and hostile manner in face-to-face interactions with school personnel. Lake Washington School District officials also contended that his requests were time-consuming, and the staff often felt threatened. On one occasion, L.F. requested a Section 504 plan to address his daughter’s anxiety, while his ex-wife and daughter did not feel such a plan was necessary.
To curb the relentless conflict, the district created a customized communication plan that required L.F. and his ex-wife to communicate only with particular staff members or do so only at a specified time and place. The plan made clear that school officials would not respond to substantive complaints outside of these established channels. The father still had access to school records, could attend school-related activities, and could respond to emergency situations.
L.F. followed the general requirements of the communication plan for a few weeks, but then disobeyed. School officials responded by reducing the biweekly communication with him to once a month. He requested that the communication plan be modified or lifted, but the district refused. The father then sued the school district in federal court, alleging that the communication plan trampled on his First Amendment free speech rights, amounted to retaliation because he sought action under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and discriminated against him under state law based on his marital status and sex—as a divorced father.
The Parent’s Rights Were Not Violated
The federal district court dismissed the father’s claims and granted the school district’s motion for summary judgment in L.F. v. Lake Washington School District in 2018. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that serves nine western states, in an unpublished opinion, affirmed the district court’s decision in 2020. The court reasoned that the school merely regulated the manner in which he could speak but did not dictate—or even limit—the content or viewpoint of his speech. Furthermore, even if the communication plan had been found to restrict the parent’s speech, it did not violate his constitutional rights under the First Amendment because the plan was a “reasonable effort to manage a parent’s relentless and unproductive communications with district staff.” Regarding his other allegations, the retaliation claim was not appealed, but the court found that school officials treated both parents in the same way with regard to the discrimination claim. As a result, there was no discrimination.
Meanwhile, in California, the 9th Circuit was again faced with a case involving an allegedly unruly parent and free speech considerations. The court ruled 3–0 in favor of the Redondo Beach Unified School District and its creation of a Disruptive Parent Letter. The school system required a mother to seek permission from the principal of Jefferson Elementary School at least 24 hours prior to visiting the campus where her three children attended.
The mother was upset about an instructional aide assigned to her child with cerebral palsy for one day each week and a half day every other week. The mother began to approach the instructional assistant daily and repeatedly called two other instructional assistants’ cellphones. She cursed at the principal and staff in person. The instructional assistant felt so uncomfortable that she would hide inside a locked classroom until the mom left campus. In an unpublished opinion, the court deemed the Disruptive Parent Letter was “a reasonable regulation unrelated to viewpoint discrimination” and, therefore, not a constitutional violation of free speech rights.
Taken together, the two cases are a strong affirmation of a principal’s right to protect students and staff if parents cross the line in their communications. Free speech is no defense against uncivil behavior.
- Parents do not have an unfettered right to pester and intimidate building personnel while claiming protection by the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause.
- Principals, in collaboration with the district, can create a communication plan to manage unruly parents, as long as the plan addresses the time, place, and manner of the speech but does not restrict the content or viewpoint.
- Building leaders need to be mindful of treating parents equally. If another parent behaves badly, the principal should not refrain from imposing a communications plan simply because the person has power and standing in the community.
- When possible, it is essential to build relationships with parents to avoid reaching the extreme junction when a communications plan becomes necessary.
- Both the Washington and California cases were decided by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Strictly speaking, the holding is binding only in its jurisdiction, which covers Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. Still, the cases contain lessons that are helpful to know nationwide.
Edwin C. Darden, JD, is an attorney specializing in education law and policy, particularly free speech, religion, search and seizure, and civil rights. He is a former adjunct professor and past president of the Education Law Association. Suzanne E. Eckes, PhD, JD, is a professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN. She is a co-author of Principals Avoiding Lawsuits and a past president of the Education Law Association.
Camfield v. Bd. of Trustees of Redondo Beach Unified Sch. Dist., 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 2840 (2020).
L.F. v. Lake Wash. Sch. Dist. #414, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 118434 (W.D. Wash. 2018).
L.F. v. Lake Wash. Sch. Dist. #414, 947 F.3d 621 (9th Cir. 2020).