School districts often grapple with how to handle communications from a minority of parents who send voluminous and uncivil messages to their children’s teachers and other school staff. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently addressed one public school district’s plan to address such communications from a particularly difficult parent. In L.F. v. Lake Washington School District #414, 947 F.3d 621 (9th Cir. 2020), the court held that the school district did not violate a father’s First Amendment rights when, in response to his excessive and intimidating emails and interactions with staff, it instructed him to communicate only via in-person meetings with certain administrators at a specified time and place.
The parent, in this case, was the father of two public school students who contested the manner in which the school district handled his daughters’ anxiety and behavioral disorders. In light of his concerns, the parent repeatedly sent emails and engaged in face-to-face communications in which he accused staff of wrongdoing, lodged insults, made unreasonable demands, and otherwise acted in a threatening and belligerent way. In response to the communications, which the district considered unproductive and intimidating, the district imposed a Communication Plan. The plan limited the father’s substantive communications about his children’s education to bi-weekly (and later monthly), in-person meetings with district administrators. Notably, the plan did not apply to emergency situations and did not prevent the father from attending school functions, participating in the Section 504 process for his daughters or accessing school records. It did, however, advise him not to “email or attempt to communicate (in any form) with any District employees” aside from the aforementioned bi-weekly meetings and informed the father that district staff would not respond to any such emails or communication efforts.
The father filed a lawsuit and alleged that the Communication Plan violated his First Amendment free speech rights. After the trial court rejected those claims and granted summary judgment in favor of the school district, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision.
The Ninth Circuit summarized the Communication Plan as “limit[ing] [the father] to specific channels – the bi-weekly meetings – for any communication to which he wanted a response.” The court explained that there is no constitutional right to force the government (in this case, the school district) to listen to or respond to one’s speech. In response to the father’s argument that the district restricted the amount of communication he could have with school employees, the court stated that the district only limited the communications to which it would respond; indeed, this refusal to respond was the only sanction the district imposed for any unapproved communication. The Ninth Circuit concluded that “the Communication Plan regulated the District’s conduct, not [the father]’s” and therefore did not violate the First Amendment.
The Ninth Circuit further stated that, even if the district had restricted the father’s speech, such a restriction was constitutional. The court noted that the classroom and other school property are not traditional public fora, in which the regulation of speech is subject to heightened scrutiny, but non-public fora, in which regulations of speech must only be reasonable and not based on the viewpoint expressed. Because the Communication Plan concerned the manner of the father’s communication – not its content or his viewpoint – the restrictions were permissible. The Ninth Circuit ultimately concluded that “the Communication Plan was a reasonable effort to manage a parent’s relentless and unproductive communications with District staff. As such, it did not violate [the father]’s First Amendment rights even if it restricted his speech.”
Considerations for School Districts
In this information age, school districts are increasingly confronted with parents who send a barrage of emails or other communications to school district staff. This Ninth Circuit decision recognizes that, when parent communications become excessive, uncivil or intimidating, school districts may implement reasonable protocols for parental communication and responses from school staff without violating parents’ First Amendment rights.
Still, in developing such plans, school districts must take care not to restrict the content of the speech or the viewpoints expressed. Communication plans should offer specific communication channels for the parents to utilize and explain who from the district will respond and how and when parents can expect such responses. Moreover, from a practical standpoint, rushing to implement a restrictive communication plan at the first instance of a communication concern may not be the best approach. Rather, when an issue arises, as general first step, districts should clearly inform or remind parents about expectations for appropriate communication and, if necessary, consider warning parents that a communication plan may be implemented if parents do not comport with those expectations. If a communication plan becomes necessary, districts may wish in appropriate cases to consider starting with less restrictive measures and then implement additional or more significant measures if needed. Importantly, each case will be fact specific, and a communication plan should be developed to address the particular concerns with the parent’s communication.
Finally, in designing and implementing any parental communication plan, school districts must be cognizant of other rights parents may have under the IDEA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, and other federal and state laws. Districts must ensure that any communication plan allows parents to exercise those rights as permitted by law.