California trial court allows student’s free speech, unreasonable search and seizure suit to proceed against school district
The Contra Costa Times reports that a Humboldt County Superior Court has ruled that an Arcata High School (AHS) student’s lawsuit against the Northern Humboldt Union High School District (NHUSD) may proceed. The [state trial] court for the most part denied NHUSD’s motion to dismiss the suit, instead finding that the student, Carlos Espinosa, had stated valid claims that AHS officials violated his constitutional free speech rights. The suit stems from a February 2010 incident involving Espinosa wearing a sweatshirt to school emblazoned with the words “Humboldt 4:21, Just Did It” over the Nike Swoosh logo.
According to Espinosa, after his teacher suggested that the sweatshirt was not appropriate for class, he removed it and put it in his mother’s car, which was parked in the school lot and which he was driving that day. After class, Espinosa was called to meet with then AHS Dean of Students Kevin Kleckner, who asked to see the sweatshirt, alleges the suit. Espinosa then took Kleckner to his mother’s car, retrieved the sweatshirt and showed it to Kleckner, who then told Espinosa he was going to search the car.
The suit contends that during the search Kleckner discovered a small amount of marijuana, two vicodin pills and a pipe. Espinosa was suspended from school for five days and was denied the opportunity to defend against the charges. According to the suit, his mother, Gina Espinosa, claims that the controlled substances belonged to her and that she had simply forgotten them in the vehicle before lending it to her son.
The suit charges that NHUSD violated Carlos Espinosa’s constitutionally protected free speech rights, his protection from unreasonable search and seizure, and the education code, which requires that pupils facing suspension be given the opportunity to present a defense. In its motion to dismiss, NHUSD argued that Espinosa’s sweatshirt alone constituted the reasonable suspicion necessary to search the car, that Espinosa was afforded due process and that Espinosa’s sweatshirt was a blatant violation of school dress code.
The court found that if the factual allegations in Espinosa’s suit are true, there is cause for the case to move forward. It denied NHUSD’s motion, with the exception of that portion seeking dismissal of the unlawful search and seizure claim brought by the mother. The court concluded that she didn’t have standing to bring the suit, but allowed her an opportunity to amend the complaint to show standing.
Source: Contra Costa Times, 3/3/11, By Thadeus Greenson/The Times-Standard
[Editor's Note: Could a drug-related message on a sweatshirt provide school officials with sufficient authority to search the student's vehicle parked on campus? Under the well-established standard articulated by the Supreme Court in New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, (1985), under the Fourth Amendment, school officials need only have reasonable suspicion (rather than a warrant or probable cause) of a violation law or school rules to search a student at school, provided the search remains reasonable in scope. Many state courts have adopted this standard, recognizing the need for school officials to maintain order, especially with respect to drug searches. (See In the Matter of M.A.D., summarized at the first link below.)
The California Constitution provides an explicit right to privacy: "All people are by nature free and independent and have inalienable rights. Among these are enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing, and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining safety, happiness, and privacy." In September 2010, the California Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District, upheld a trial court’s issuance of an preliminary injunction prohibiting Shasta Union High School District (SUHSD) from enforcing its mandatory random drug testing of non-athlete high school students who participate in competitive extracurricular activities. The court found that the students "were likely to prevail on establishing a sufficient expectation of privacy to assert a claim for violation of the constitutional right to privacy.” A summary of the court's decision appears at the second link below.
Federal courts continue to weigh in on the boundaries of student free speech rights with respect to messages on clothing. In March 2010, a three-judge panel of the U.S Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (IL, IN, WI) ruled that students were entitled to a permanent injunction prohibiting a school district from banning them from wearing clothing at school displaying the message “Be Happy, Not Gay,” plus nominal damages. The panel concluded that the evidence presented by the school district was insufficient to satisfy the Tinker substantial disruption standard. The evidence of past disruption, prior to the wearing of the “Be Happy, Not Gay,” was negligible, it determined. The panel also found that some of the evidence was barred by the doctrine of “heckler’s veto,” because it used speech that contained no fighting words, which would not have moved a reasonable person to a violent response, to justify banning the speech. Lastly, it concluded that the expert’s report failed to meet the requirements of the federal rules of evidence. A summary of the opinion is available at the third link below.]