Va. law student’s First Amendment claim against law school can proceed, court rules

VIRGINIA — A lawsuit against George Mason University Law School by a student who says the university violated her First Amendment rights will continue after a federal appeals court on June 13 overturned a lower court’s decision to dismiss the claim.

Carin Constantine, who also alleges that she was discriminated against because of a physical disability, claims she was failed in a class because she wrote a column for the law school student newspaper, The Docket, that was critical of the law school’s grade appeal process.

Her lawsuit was thrown out by a federal judge last year on the grounds that the university had immunity from being sued, and that Constantine had not proven that she was disabled and could sue under the Americans with Disabilities Act. She appealed the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond.

Constantine said for several months the university ignored her requests to retake a constitutional law test after she complained of a migraine headache in the middle of the exam in January. The school also ignored her requests for a hearing, she said. She said that was the point at which she wrote the column.

Constantine claims she was eventually given a testing date of June 2003, and was then told in May that her exam was being pushed up and would be in three days. She filed an injunction in court against the university to delay taking the test, but it was denied. She told university officials that she would not take the test at that time. She took it later in July and received an F, and failed the class.

She claims the column caused the administrators to move up her testing date and fail her.

The appeals court did not rule on the First Amendment claim, but said that if George Mason University had in fact denied her the chance to retake the exam, had determined a failing grade in advance and given her only several days notice to prepare for the test because of the column she wrote, then Constantine’s claims could have merit. “Retaliatory actions may tend to chill individuals exercise of constitutional rights,” the court said. The lawsuit was sent back to the district court for trial.

Michael Beattie, Constantine’s lawyer, said it may take up to two years for the district court to rehear the case because the university might seek an appeal.

Daniel Walsch, a spokesman for George Mason University, declined to comment on the issue.

Constantine said the column, which she said contained “a little bit of satire,” was written for the Docket because she was frustrated with not getting a response from the university in regards to retaking the test. She said she got a positive response from other students who felt the same way she did about appealing a grade at George Mason University.

“Within hours of the newspaper’s appearance, students started coming up to me and told me how they had gotten the same runaround I did,” Constantine said. “It had an amazing impact at the school.”

Constantine said she knew she might see repercussions from the article, but wanted to write it anyway. “I think [the article] hurt my case more than it helped.”

Despite doubts over whether writing the column as a good or bad thing, she said she was “ecstatic” over the verdict.

“It sets a legal precedent of freedom of speech for students,” Constantine said.

–By Rebecca McNulty