Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Hamptons tragedy yields no speech violation

This case has tragedy written all over it. It winds up in federal court under the First Amendment. You have the sense there was no way the plaintiffs were going to win this one.

The case is DeFabio v. East Hampton Union Free School District, decided on October 13. The facts are straightforward. After an Hispanic high school student died in a motorcycle accident, a rumor spread throughout school that Daniel DeFabio made a racist remark about his classmate's death, "one down, forty thousand to go." DeFabio denied saying this, but many classmates threatened him, prompting the school to remove him from classes for his own protection. DeFabio wanted to return to school to let everyone know that he had actually said in the wake of the motorcycle death that he was upset to hear someone else make the insensitive remark, and that his statement was therefore taken out of context. But the school refused to read his side of the story over the loudspeaker during morning announcements, fearing that it would further aggravate tensions. Meanwhile, the police had to patrol outside DeFabio's house for a week because the principal heard about threats to burn the house down.

DeFabio sues under the First Amendment over the school's refusal to let him defend himself to his classmates. The theory is that DeFabio went through hell because classmates did not hear his side of the story. He loses the case on summary judgment.

Two legal principles are at play here. First, under the Supreme Court's well-known Tinker case, the school cannot silence students unless they reasonably believe that the speech would materially disrupt the educational process. Second, public officials are immune from suit if their actions were objectively reasonable under the circumstances. Both standards tend to give school authorities the benefit of the doubt.

The Court of Appeals (Leval, Hall and Parker) says "[t]here is no question that Daniel's mere presence in the school, with or without his speech, would likely result in violence or the threat of violence and would therefore 'materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.'" While DeFabio also wanted school officials to read his statement over the loudspeaker, the Second Circuit grants them immunity on that First Amendment claim as well, concluding that officials reasonably thought this gesture would have only further confused and angered students who did not believe DeFabio.

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