In a recent court ruling, Judge Garvan Murthai of the Vermont District Court allowed a parent’s First Amendment claims to go forward to trial after the Superintendent banned the parent, whose child was eligible for special education and related services, from all school grounds, including banning the parent from board of education meetings.

The school district banned the parent after he had made harassing and threatening statements to school staff and committed acts that frightened school staff. The parent allegedly drove past his child’s teacher’s house in another state, banged his fists on tables during meetings, randomly drove by the school when it was not in session and honked the horn when he knew that the school’s principal was the only person in the building, and shouted loudly at school staff on a continual basis. The parent also filed several complaints against the school district, put up signs and handed out flyers at board meetings. Additionally, the parent made threatening and potentially violent statements in online forums about the school and school staff.

The Superintendent called the police department after receiving a “duty to warn” call from the student’s psychologist because the student had expressed a desire to kill school staff with an axe. School staff believed that the student must have repeated something that he heard in the home and became alarmed. The police department provided the Superintendent with a “notice against trespass” that the Superintendent gave to the parent. The “notice of trespass” banned the parent for two years from entering any school grounds for any reason.

In its ruling allowing the case to go to trial, the court found that the parent had no First Amendment right of access to school buildings and that school board meetings were limited public fora. Accordingly, the judge held that the limits on the parent’s speech by banning him from school property were “collateral consequences” of his own potentially dangerous actions and that his right of access was not implicated because the school district did not ban him based on his speech. 

However, the court allowed the parent’s argument, that by categorically banning him from all school property, the school district violated his right to freedom of expression under the First Amendment, to go forward to trial. While the court ruled that protecting school staff is a significant governmental interest, it found that the school district’s actions in categorically banning the parent were not “narrowly tailored” enough under the First Amendment. The judge noted that the school district could have applied the ban only during school hours and then had a police presence at its school board meetings. Despite the school district’s argument that it permitted the parent to “phone in” to board of education meetings, the judge ruled that phoning in to the meetings did not provide the parent with the same benefits under the First Amendment as he would have enjoyed if he were permitted to attend the meetings in person.

Additionally, the court ruled that the parent’s due process claims could also go forward to trial. The parent argued that the school district violated his right to procedural due process by stripping him of his First Amendment rights without giving him an opportunity to contest the categorical ban or address the behavior leading to his being banned.

Finally, the court addressed the issue of municipal liability and established that, because the Superintendent who issued the ban had authority do so, the school board could face municipal liability for his actions in issuing the “notice of trespass” to the parent.

Read the full decision here.