School District Lawfully Limited Communications With Parent

Category: Briefing Room
Date: Feb 5, 2020 11:39 AM

L.F. is the divorced father of two daughters who attended school within the Lake Washington School District in Washington State. L.F. believed his daughters had anxiety and behavioral disorders that adversely affected their educational performance. He had a number of disagreements with District staff regarding the best ways to address these issues and what he saw as discrimination against him as a divorced father.

The District argued that beginning in March 2015, L.F. used a pattern of abusive communications to school staff including “incessant emails to staff accusing them of wrongdoing, making presumptuous demands,” and insulting them. He would also act in an “aggressive, hostile, and intimidating manner” at in-person meetings. District employees complained that L.F.’s time-consuming communications made District staff feel threatened and intimidated.

In November 2015, the District implemented a Communication Plan for L.F. Under the plan, the District limited L.F.’s substantive communications with the District about his daughters’ education to bi-weekly, in-person meetings with two District administrators. The District advised L.F. not to “email or attempt to communicate (in any form) with any District employees” aside from the bi-weekly meetings, “as they will not respond to [his] emails or attempts to communicate.” The Communication Plan’s restrictions did not: apply in the event of an emergency;  effect L.F.’s right to appeal the school’s decision regarding the accommodation plan L.F. wanted for his daughter; nor bar him from attending school activities or accessing school records. The District informed its employees who worked with L.F.’s daughters about the Communication Plan via email.

L.F. followed the requirements of the Communication Plan for a few weeks, but the District found he violated it in January 2016. As a result, the District further restricted the meetings between L.F. and District administrators, cutting back from bi-weekly to once a month. Over the succeeding months, L.F. requested the District to lift or modify the Communication Plan, but the District refused.

In March 2017, L.F. sued the District alleging that the Communication Plan violated his First Amendment rights and that the District discriminated and retaliated against him in violation of both federal and state law. Both parties requested the Court make a ruling that the other party had no case because were no facts in dispute. The trial court ruled in the District’s favor and dismissed all of L.F.’s claims. L.F. appealed to the Ninth Circuit.

On appeal, L.F. argued that the Communication Plan violated his First Amendment rights by prohibiting him from communicating with his children’s teachers or from challenging District decisions. The court found this to be an overstatement. The Communication Plan did not entirely prohibit such communication or challenges; rather, it limited L.F. to specified channels – the bi-weekly meetings. The Court found the District was within its rights to impose such a limitation. L.F. did not have a constitutional right to force the District to listen to his views, and the First Amendment does not require the District to respond to speech directed toward it.

L.F. also argued the District went beyond simply regulating the speech to which it would respond. The only so-called “sanction” in the plan for unapproved communications was that District employees would not respond to L.F.’s attempts to communicate. Therefore, the Communication Plan regulated the District’s conduct, not L.F.’s, and it did not violate L.F.’s First Amendment rights.

Even assuming the Communication Plan restricted L.F.’s speech, the  Ninth Circuit agreed with the trial court that it did not violate his First Amendment rights. L.F.’s communication occurred in classrooms and other government property that are not open to the general public, so regulation of expressive activity need only be reasonable. The Court agreed with the trial court 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 L.F.’s First Amendment rights even if it restricted his speech.

Ultimately, the Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling in favor of the District.

L. F. v. Lake Washington School Dist., 2020 WL 253572 (2020).

Note:

This case provides guidance public agency administrators can use for handling abusive conduct from members of the public.  While the public agency cannot restrict the public’s First Amendment speech rights, this case shows that the public agency need not respond to, or can limit its response to abusive or time-consuming communications. 

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