BoardBuzz thinks the school boards and superintendents of two districts deserve some appreciation from their colleagues for doing the right thing in the nation’s courts.
School principals as Con Law experts?
The first kudos go way up to Juneau, Alaska. Their school district’s fight is Frederick v. Morse, a.k.a. the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case. Kid sued his high school principal and school board when he was disciplined for holding up a sign with that memorable slogan as he and his classmates watched the Olympic torch carried by their school. His free speech claim lost in the lower court, but won in the Ninth Circuit court of appeals. Details in NSBA’s summary of that decision here. NSBA joined a legal brief filed in the Ninth by the Alaska Association of School Boards.
In reversing the lower court, the Ninth Circuit opined: “The phrase ‘Bong Hits 4 Jesus’ may be funny, stupid, or insulting, depending on one’s point of view, but it is not ‘plainly offensive’ in the way sexual innuendo is.” Hmm. Bong hits… Jesus… Not offensive. Not in the Ninth Circuit, anyway.
But the real jaw-dropper in this opinion is the court’s conclusion that the principal gets no immunity from the lawsuit. Basically, the legal standard here is that she can be personally liable where no reasonable public official could have mistakenly believed that her actions were constitutional. In other words, this supposedly was such a slam dunk case that any high school principal should have known better—even though a U.S. district court judge ruled she was right! Note to upcoming administrators taking your school law course: Study hard.
The district will attempt to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case. Ken Starr is representing the district pro bono. But it seems the school board has taken a bit of flak for going ahead. This sharp column in the Juneau Empire by school board president Phyllis Carlson explains what’s at stake.
The Juneau School District also has a series of press statements on the case posted on its Web site; click on the Frederick v. Morse link at the top, right side of the page.
[Aside 1: It's refreshing to see a school district telling its side of the story like this. Educators never will compete on equal footing with the PR-savvy voices who have so much time and money to devote to disparaging public schools. And, of course, schools have constraints when commenting on pending legal matters and must follow privacy laws. But just about every school district has a Web site, and school leaders can make good communicators.]
A Magna Carta for an emerging industry?
Kudos also are due this district in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., which has taken an IDEA case, Arlington Central School District v. Murphy, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Here’s what BoardBuzz said last time about this case, which concerns whether school districts should have to pay the costs of consultants in special education cases. The legal bills have generated headlines there too, though, like this one.
Like in Juneau, it may not be readily apparent to the local taxpayers who are footing the legal bill just how much money is at stake in such crucial court decisions, not only locally but for school programs all over the country. That article from the local paper in Poughkeepsie, though, took note of this key exchange from the Supreme Court oral arguments:
During the April 19 hearings, Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy signaled what school districts could face when he responded to claims by the Murphys’ lawyer, David Vladeck, that expert fees awarded in other cases “tend to be exceedingly modest.”
“Well, that’s before the Magna Carta you’re asking for in this case, which would establish a whole new profession of experts,” Kennedy said.
That’s a key point NSBA made in its brief to the court, one echoed by NSBA General Counsel Francisco Negrón in the article.
[Aside 2: The Poughkeepsie Journal sets a good standard, by the way, of high quality coverage of a complex case like this. Reporters John Ferro and Erikah Haavie clearly have sunk their teeth into this one. In fact, here's a whole Web site page the Journal has dedicated to the case.]
Stay tuned to BoardBuzz for how these cases play out and what they mean for school programs. Meanwhile, if you have a few moments, you might consider dropping a line or two of gratitude to these district leaders for doing the heavy lifting for everybody.