The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

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.