District Court Reverses Field, Finding Players’ Claim Can Continue

Mar 28, 2008

On remand from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a district court judge has reversed a previous ruling and concluded that the plaintiffs–a team of high school basketball players who protested their coach by declining to board a bus for game–have proven that their speech was protected sufficiently enough to survive summary judgment.
The origins of the dispute stemmed from the belief held by the majority of the Clatskanie High School basketball team that the coach used harsh language and intimidated them. Together, they signed a petition and delivered it to the principal and athletic director asking their varsity basketball coach, Jeff Baughman, to resign.
In response, school officials outlined two options, according to the students: They could agree to mediation or refuse to board the bus and forfeit their privilege to play in the game.
The players chose the latter and were suspended. They then sued, claiming the school retaliated against them for engaging in protected speech.
The defendants moved for summary judgment. The court held that since the speech did not involve a matter of public concern, their grievance with their coach was private in nature and not worthy of constitutional protection. It further wrote that it would set “a dangerous precedent capable of unlimited application” to rule that private grievances against a school employee with no political dimension could give rise to a First Amendment claim.
The appeals court overturned that ruling and remanded the case back to the lower court.
Upon further review, the district court reached the a different conclusion..
“Defendants suggest that once the camel gets his nose in the tent, school administrators will be powerless to rein in the actions of students who simply preface their disruptive behavior with a petition. Those are not the facts confronting this court. Here, plaintiffs have made a showing, in sufficient fashion to survive summary judgment, that the behavior that allegedly serves as the basis for their punishment was induced by defendants in response to constitutionally protected speech. By allowing this case to proceed to trial, this court simply holds that school officials, in response to protected speech, may not goad or trick students into sanctionable behavior that the evidence suggests they otherwise would not have engaged in.”
Jacob Pinard et al. v. Clatskanie School District 6J et al.; D. Ore.; Civil No. 03-172-HA, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10539; 2/12/08
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiffs) Michael R. Seidl, Phillip J. Nelson, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Landye Bennett Blumstein LLP, Portland, OR. (for defendants) Peter R. Mersereau, Thomas W. McPherson, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Mersereau & Shannon, LLP, Portland, OR.


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