Circuit Court Reverses Field in Players’ Free Speech Case

Oct 12, 2007

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a trial court, granting summary judgment to a football coach and school district, who had been sued by several student athletes, who were kicked off the football team after they started a petition for the football coach’s ouster.
Specifically, the panel found that the petition did not represent protected speech or activity and that all coaches should have the right to maintain discipline on their teams.
The incident occurred in the fall of 2005 when many of the players of the Jefferson County High School football team became dissatisfied with the “coaching methods” of Head Coach Marty Euverard, alleging that he “struck a player in the helmet, threw away college recruiting letters to disfavored players, humiliated and degraded players, used inappropriate language and required a year-round conditioning program in violation of high-school rules.”
Several of the students started a petition, noting that they “hated” the coach and did not “want to play for him.”
When the coach found out about the petition, he called a team meeting, systematically, he interviewed each player. However, several of the students, the plaintiffs, refused to be interviewed separately. The coach kicked them off the team.
The plaintiffs sued. The defendants moved for summary judgment based on qualified immunity, which was denied by the trial court. On appeal, the defendants reasserted the qualified immunity argument, citing Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969). In essence, the defendant had to show that a constitutional right was not violated when the coach kicked the players off the team.
In its analysis, the panel quoted Tinker and its proposition that “school officials may regulate speech that materially and substantially interferes ‘with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.’”
The panel further noted that “a high school athletic team could not function smoothly with an authority structure based on the will of the players.” Specifically, it compared the facts of the instant case to those from Wildman v. Marshalltown, 249 F. 3d 768 (8th Cir. 2001) in which a student athlete, who was frustrated by not being promoted to the varsity, distributed a letter against the coach. When the coach discovered the letter, he asked the player to apologize. When she refused, he kicked her off the team. The 8th Circuit found for the defendant, citing the “insubordinate speech.”
The panel added this interesting passage about the need for coaches “to maintain order and discipline.”
“The ability of the coach to lead is inextricably linked to his ability to maintain order and discipline. Thus, attacking the authority of the coach necessarily undermines his ability to lead the team. In the instant case, (the plaintiff) admitted that signing the petition was equivalent to saying he had no respect for Euverard. Plaintiffs’ circulation of a petition … was a direct challenge to Euverard’s authority and undermined his ability to lead the team. It could have no other effect.”
The panel also took note that the right to participate in athletics is a privilege, not a right, which was another factor that favored the defendants. “Plaintiffs’ ability to attend class has not been threatened,” it wrote.
Jeff Lowery et al. v. Marty Euverard et al.; 6th Cir.; No. 06-6172; 8/3/07


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