9th Circuit OKs school’s restrictions on parent’s communication.

Things blew up at the 504 meeting.  The dad believed that his daughter needed a 504 plan, but the mom, the girl and the school all disagreed. So there was no 504 plan.   Communication from the dad after that meeting was voluminous and, in the eyes of school administrators, hostile.  So the school imposed a “Communication Plan” whereby two administrators would meet with the man every other week. Other than that, school staff were told not to respond to the dad’s emails or phone calls.  

The dad claimed that this violated his free speech rights under the First Amendment, but the 9th Circuit said otherwise.  In doing so, the court gives us good guidance on how to deal with that rare parent who abuses lines of communication. 

*There was a basis for singling this dad out.  The school described his communications as “unproductive” and leaving several educators feeling intimidated and bullied. 

*The way the court looked at it, the school was not telling him he could not communicate with school staff—it was only saying that it would not respond to him:

But the plan only set a limit on the amount of communications to which the District would respond.  The only so-called “sanction” in the plan for unapproved communications was that District employees “would not respond to L.F.’s emails or attempts to communicate.” In short, the Communication Plan regulated the District’s conduct, not L.F.’s.

*The restrictions did not apply in an emergency.

*The parent was allowed to attend school activities, and to access school records. 

*The parent could appeal the decision to restrict his communications.

*The plan in no way restricted the content of the dad’s communications. It was about time, place and manner.

With those limitations in mind, the court held that 1) this plan did not infringe on the parent’s right to free speech; and 2) even if it did infringe on those rights, it was a reasonable “time, place and manner” regulation that the First Amendment permits.

If you find it necessary to rein in unproductive communications from a parent, I would add two additional thoughts. First, run this by your school attorney to make sure that you are doing this at the right time, under the right circumstances, with the right language.  Second, no matter how “right” you are, be prepared for an accusation that you are retaliating against the parent. Which brings us right back to the first point: run this by your school attorney. 

This case is L.F. v. Lake Washington School District #414, decided by the 9th Circuit on January 17, 2020.  We found it at 2020 WL 253572. 


Tomorrow: V-Day in the Middle School.  Oh boy.