Illinois court: No clear First Amendment right for parent to complain about child’s discipline

A federal court in Illinois has rejected a mother’s claim that a Springfield, Ill., elementary school violated the First Amendment by suspending her son to punish her for complaining about school discipline.

A U.S. district judge dismissed Rebecca Wysocki’s lawsuit Dec. 20, finding that the school’s principal could not be held financially liable for violating the family’s rights because it is unclear whether Wysocki’s complaint was protected by the First Amendment.

Under federal law, a government official cannot be held responsible for violating the Constitution unless the official’s behavior was known to be unlawful at the time. An injured party normally must point to a prior court case involving similar facts to show that the law was “clearly established” at the time of the violation.

In the Wysocki case, Judge Sue B. Meyerscough ruled that Wanless Elementary School Principal Karen Crump would not have known whether Wysocki’s speech was constitutionally protected at the time she suspended Wysocki’s second-grade son (referred to in the court case only by his first initial, “T.”).

The judge declined to say whether she believed the retaliation — assuming it occurred — was or was not a constitutional violation. It was enough, she said, to decide that the law was not “clearly established” when the discipline was handed out in October 2010.

Wysocki testified that she met with Crump on Oct. 5, 2010, after the latest in a series of disciplinary incidents involving “T.,” who suffers from bipolar disorder.

Wysocki asked whether “T.” was suspended, and Crump said no. Wysocki then accused Crump of speaking inappropriately to “T.” the previous day, charging that the principal intentionally “set off” his misbehavior by yelling at him. “Fine, then he’s suspended,” Crump replied, according to Wysocki.

Crump denied this account. She said the child was appropriately suspended after he threw a bookbag at her during an argument. Nevertheless, because the case was before the judge at preliminary stage — a motion for summary judgment — the judge was required to assume that Wysokci’s testimony would be accepted as entirely true by a jury. The judge could dismiss the case only if Wysocki’s credibility did not matter, because her claims were non-actionable as a matter of law.

That is exactly what Judge Myerscough decided. She held that there is no clearly established constitutional right to complain to a school about the treatment of one’s child.

The judge noted that, in the context of claims by government employees, the Supreme Court has said there is no First Amendment right to be free from retaliatory discipline unless the complaint involves a matter of “public concern” as opposed to a private dispute over working conditions.

In a 1990 ruling, the federal appeals court covering Illinois decided that parents’ complaint about the way child-abuse investigators treated their daughter was not legally protected speech, because the complaint was not an attempt to call public attention to wrongdoing.

Based on these legal precedents, the judge ruled, Crump might reasonably have assumed that it was legal to punish “T.” in response to his mother’s complaint.

The ruling illustrates the difficulty in bringing constitutional claims against government agencies. The government is itself immune from paying money damages, so injured parties must instead try to sue the individual government actors who harmed them. But the doctrine of “qualified immunity” forecloses money damages against federal employees unless there is a nearly identical prior court ruling giving notice that the behavior was unlawful.

In this case, there was a prior court ruling indicating that prison inmates have a right to be free from retaliation for complaining about purely private, individual matters that do not rise to a level of “public concern.” But in Judge Myerscough’s view, that 2009 case was not factually similar enough to to put Crump on notice that it was illegal to suspend a child to punish his parent for complaining.

The case, Wysocki v. Crump, No. 10-3258, is eligible to be appealed to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.