Free Speech

High School Drama Club Drama

Like Glee, only in federal court?

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

From Eck v. Olley Valley Sch. Dist., decided two weeks ago by Judge Mark A. Kearney (E.D. Pa.):

We again balance students' constitutional rights with a high school's disciplinary steps. Can three high school drama club members recover damages because their school district suspended them from classes or extra-curriculars after they each complained about their drama director's theatrics at a public meeting?

Our drama opens with the school's drama director's choice of the lead for the Spring 2019 musical. The unsuccessful lead who also served as drama club president, along with his girlfriend and another student, decided to complain about the drama director at a school board meeting. Learning the students' plan, the drama director e-mailed parents the night before the board meeting possibly suggesting improper conduct by the unsuccessful lead.

Following the board meeting and a closed rehearsal, the unsuccessful lead spoke to the drama director. Following e-mails later the same night and then early the next morning, the superintendent and principal met the unsuccessful lead and his mother to suspend him. Hours later, they suspended his also-complaining actor girlfriend from classes seemingly without explanation. After the musical closed, the drama director removed the third complaining student actor from a post-show extra-curricular activity. The students allegedly promised revenge. 

Weeks later, they sued the school district and three state actors for retaliating against them for complaining about the drama director at a public meeting and depriving them of due process in suspending them from either classes or the post-musical extra-curricular activity. The unsuccessful lead also sued the drama director for defamation and false light invasion of privacy under Pennsylvania law based on her pre-meeting e-mail to parents.

After three amended complaints, many of the quandaries require our jury evaluating who to believe. But we must grant summary judgment dismissing three claims, along with the conspiracy theories related to them, in our upcoming trial: the disappointed lead's claim for First Amendment retaliation against the drama director as there is no evidence of her role in his suspension based on his alleged First Amendment protected conduct; due process claims brought by the disappointed lead suspended during a meeting attended by his mother and him and the student precluded from a post-musical extra-curricular activity; and, the students' claim against the district's superintendent for negligent supervision for allowing the First Amendment retaliation….

[N]either the Students nor the District and its administrators adduce undisputed issues of fact warranting judgment as a matter of law of most of the issues except for [the three dismissed theories]. This drama will open in less than two months in our courtroom where our jury will decide among the protagonists as to why the District and its state actors either individually or in concert suspended the Students or denied due process to Student Hartline, and whether Director Lyons's March 19, 2019 e-mail warrants damages to Student Eck for defamation or false light invasion of privacy.

Read the whole thing for the details, though I regret to say that the opinion, at over 72,000 characters, is about the length of Shakespeare's shortest play, The Comedy of Errors.

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  1. Haven’t gotten through the whole thing, but I believe this is the first time I’ve seen end-notes for all citations in a judicial opinion. That certainly is not common. As a casual reader who doesn’t need to use this opinion for work or research or anything, it is easier reading for sure. But, if I was an attorney representing one of the parties, involved in the appeals process, or looking at this case for legal research in another case or project, I would be highly annoyed at this format.

    1. I thought regular footnotes were bad, but this may take the cake as the absolute most annoying citation system.

      1. I go back and forth on footnotes. Sometimes I think they’re necessary when whatever you’re going to cite has a very long title or a web address. I hate seeing full web addresses above the line. I also think lawyers should stick the string-cites in one if they’re going to insist on doing those.

  2. A lot of this is way too cute and a waste of the taxpayer’s money. The issues and decisions–most but not all resulting in summary judgments in favor of the school staff–could have been given in a document half this length. One significant downside of the generally salutary doctrine of judicial immunity is that no one is allowed to say “Not funny, your honor.”

  3. School officials can punish students for their comments during a school board meeting?!

    “According to Ms. Hartenstine, Director Lyons then asked Student Eck if “he was accusing [Ms. Hartenstine] of lying” to which he responded he “still did not believe [Ms. Hartenstine] making [her] feel like he was calling [her] a liar about a situation he knows nothing about that happened 10 years ago. The School District contends Student Eck’s behavior so upset Ms. Hartenstine she became “inconsolable” and later the same evening told Superintendent Shank she felt “threatened and disrespected” by Student Eck and it “will not be tolerated any longer.” Ms. Jones also wrote a memo to Superintendent Shank relating the events of Student Eck’s conversation with Director Lyons and Ms. Hartenstine, calling Student Eck “angry” with a “lack of empathy” as well as “head shaking and clenching of fists” “whenever something was said that he did not agree with” and concluded in her “daily interactions with students, I have not seen this level of anger and lack of awareness of other’s feelings.”

    The Snowflakes are truly running the asylum.

  4. Sounds like we need a new kind of anti-SLAPP statute, to keep public servants from taking “strategic actions” to prevent public participation by people familiar with their official actions.

  5. So the students got suspended for complaining about a school activity, the play, at a school board meeting. So if you are a taxpayer, attend the school, and disagree with something you cant express that at a school board meeting?

    Yea nothing totalitarian going on there LOL

  6. Too bad the judgement didn’t provide a link to the infamous “fruit video”. I think we need to watch it to decide this case.

  7. This is interesting. On the one hand, I can see the director appropriately taking some negative action against students who are “sore losers”. If I’m the director, and I don’t cast you in the part you want and you throw a hissy fit about it and go complain to the school board, you’re damn right I’m going to keep that in mind. I might kick you out of the production (if that’s an option) altogether, or not cast you at all next time or something else, too. You’re being selfish and not a team player in a production that requires everybody’s commitment.

    But on the other hand, punishment or other consequences outside of the realm of the drama department are completely inappropriate.

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