Former athletes' suit against Oregon school district to continue

OREGON — A lawsuit brought by several former ClatskanieHigh School basketball players who were kicked off their team after petitioningtheir coach to resign will continue after the U.S. District Court for Oregondenied the Clatskanie School District’s motion for summary judgment Feb.12.

The petition, signed seven years ago, prompted Coach Jeff Baughman, whoplayers felt was verbally abusive, to meet with then-principal Michael Corley.Corley allegedly told the players they could participate in a mediation and playin that night’s away game or choose not to board the bus at all. All butthree of the students boycotted the game and were suspended from the team thefollowing day.

The students filed a First Amendment lawsuit, claiming theirsuspensions were a result of the petition and that they were not told they wouldbe punished for refusing to board the bus. But the district court ruled infavor of the school district, saying the students’ speech “was not amatter of public concern nor political in nature.”

The studentsappealed, and in May 2006 the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that thepetition was constitutionally protected speech. But the court also ruled thatthe players’ refusal to play in the game substantially disrupted a schoolactivity, and thus could have been grounds for the suspension on its own. The9th Circuit issued a revised version of that decision in October 2006 andremanded the case to the district court to determine whether the suspensionswere partly a result of the petition or solely for refusing to play in the game.

The school district maintains that the suspensions were a result of theplayers’ refusal to board the bus, not because of the petition.

Butthe students claim that when Corley informed them of their two choices, hefailed to mention that Baughman would not be coaching that night’s awaygame. According to the district court’s opinion, “There issufficient evidence to support the theory that Corley both proposed the idea ofa boycott and also withheld information that would have averted theboycott.” Corley also allegedly told the players he was siding withBaughman, therefore making the proposed mediation unfair for thestudents.

The district court’s Feb. 12 opinion said that by allowingthis case to go to trial, the court holds that “school officials, inresponse to protected speech, may not goad or trick students into sanctionablebehavior that the evidence suggests they otherwise would not have engagedin.”

Calls to Peter Mersereau, attorney for the administrators, andMick Seidl, attorney for the players, were not returned by Wednesday afternoon.