School District Shielded From Lawsuit by Parent Banned From Basketball Games

Aug 30, 2019

A federal judge from the Northern District of New York has granted a school district’s motion to dismiss a parent’s claim that his First Amendment rights were violated when he was prevented from attending a high school sporting event. However, the court allowed the claim to continue against two of the individual defendants, at least until a jury could consider the veracity of the claim.
The plaintiff in the case was Truman Frierson, who at the time of the incidents leading to the litigation in early 2017 had a daughter who played on the varsity basketball team at Troy High School. On Jan. 3 of that year, the plaintiff’s daughter was removed from a game against Albany High School. A few days later, Frierson entered the school at the main entrance and met with the varsity members of the team in the cafeteria to discuss grievances with the school’s basketball program.
During the 13-minute meeting with the team, Frierson allegedly discussed walking out of a game because of the perceived abuses to his daughter and other members of the team. One of these perceived abuses was a decision made by individual defendant Paul Reinisch, the athletic director, to not stage a ceremony for the signing of a national letter of intent for his daughter. Ultimately, the plaintiff claimed he was restricted or barred by Reinisch and Superintendent John Carmello from attending school-related events. Neither man sought to have their decision supported by a vote from the school board.
The plaintiff sued, alleging the defendants violated his Constitutional rights under the First Amendment by preventing his access to school property for games and for retaliating by restricting the plaintiff’s right to associate freely without fear of reprisal by government officials.
The first determination for the court was whether the contest represented a limited public forum. In such instances, the state limits “the expressive activity to certain kinds of speakers, or to the discussion of certain subjects.” Peck v. Baldwinsville Central School District, 426 F. 3rd 617, 625, (2d Cir. 2005). Sporting contests meet this requirement.
The plaintiff claimed that because “there was no real threat of disruption or harm” that the motive for banning the plaintiff was retaliation for speaking out against the varsity coach. The court seemed to concur, noting that “a reasonable jury could find that the defendant’s ban of the plaintiff … was neither viewpoint-neutral or reasonable.” It added that “a reasonable juror could find the school’s objective in restricting the plaintiff’s attendance at sporting events was to punish the plaintiff for expressing his concerns.” It continued: “From the proximity between the plaintiff’s alleged activity and the defendant’s ban, a jury could conclude that the defendant intended to silence the plaintiff’s viewpoint.” Thus, it denied the individual defendants’ motion for summary judgment.
In considering the school district’s motion for summary judgment, the court noted that “municipal liability attaches only where the decision-maker possesses final authority to establish municipal policy with respect to the action ordered. The fact that a particular official, even a policy making official, has discretion in the exercise of particular functions does not, without more, give rise to municipal liability based on an exercise of that discretion. The official must also be responsible for establishing final government policy respecting such activity before the municipality can be held liable.” Pembaur v. City of Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 481-82, 106 S.Ct. 1292, 89 L. Ed. 2d 452 (1986).
The decisions made by the individual defendants were not an extension of the school’s district policy with regard to such matters, nor were they made with the school district’s endorsement (board vote). Thus, the court granted the district’s motion for summary judgment.
Frierson v. Troy City Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ.; N.D.N.Y.; 1:17-CV-0044 (MAD/CFH); 6/5/19


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