On January 17, 2020, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued its decision in LF v. Lake Washington School District No. 414, upholding the school district’s communications plan, which restricted a particularly difficult parent’s communication with District staff.
This case involved a father who had numerous disagreements with school personnel over his daughters’ educational services. The parent “engaged in a pattern of ‘send[ing] incessant emails to staff accusing them of wrongdoing; mak[ing] presumptuous demands; level[ing] demeaning insults;…and in face-to-face interactions, act[ing] in an aggressive, hostile, and intimidating manner.’” In response to the inappropriate communications, the District implemented a communication plan in which the parent’s communications with District staff was limited to bi-weekly, in-person meetings with school administration. The District further advised the parent not to “email or attempt to communicate (in any form) with any District employees” as staff would not respond to the parent’s emails or attempts to communicate outside of the bi-weekly meetings. The parent violated the initial communication plan, leading the District to modify the communication plan by further limiting the parent’s communications to one monthly in-person meeting.
In March 2017, the parent filed a federal lawsuit asserting three claims: 1) that the communication plan violated his First Amendment rights, 2) a retaliation claim pursuant to Section 504, and 3) a claim that the district had discriminated against him in violation of Washington state law. The lower court dismissed all three claims, ruling in the District’s favor. The parent appealed only the First Amendment claim regarding the communication plan.
The Ninth Circuit upheld the lower court’s decision that the communication plan did not violate the parent’s First Amendment rights as the District did not prohibit the parent’s communications with District staff; instead, the District merely limited the parent’s communications “to specified channels – the bi-weekly meetings – for any communications to which he wanted a response.” Moreover, the Court noted that “[m]embers of the public do not have a constitutional right to force the government to listen to their views…And the First Amendment does not compel the government to respond to speech directed toward it. The Ninth Circuit further found “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 parent’s] First Amendment rights even if it restricted his speech.”
While the Ninth Circuit does not govern Illinois schools, this case provides support for a school district’s ability to place parameters on inappropriate parent communication. When faced with a difficult parent, school districts may develop reasonable communication plans that minimize parent communication without violating the First Amendment.
Please contact any attorney in our Students/Special Education practice group with questions on managing difficult parents and developing parent communication plans.