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Articles Tagged with First Amendment lawyer

In an 8-1 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a Pennsylvania teenager in a closely watched free speech case, after the student was suspended from her high school cheerleading squad after posting a series of profane “stories” to her social media Snapchat account. This case reexamined the reach of the First Amendment as it applies to public school students when they are off school grounds. 

85B1D77E-3F46-4F76-AA85-89F1119617A2-300x170Plaintiff Brandi Levy tried out for Mahanoy Area High School’s varsity cheerleading squad, and when she did not make it, she memorialized her dissatisfaction by posting two temporary, 24-hour private stories to her Snapchat account with a friend at a local convenience store after school. The first post, which said “F**k school f**k softball f**k cheer f**k everything”, became the basis for her cheerleading coach to suspend her from the squad. Members of the cheer team notified school officials, who suspended Levy from the junior varsity cheerleading squad for the entire upcoming year under a cheer policy requiring students to be respectful, avoid profanity and not speak negatively about the sport. Levy and her family brought the case to district court. Both the district court and the court of appeals sided with Levy, granting her an injunction and nominal damage, but disagreeing with what standard applies to a school’s regulation of off-campus student speech. 

The Supreme Court granted review and drew a new line where public schools have the authority to regulate student speech. The Court relied on the 1969 case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which was a landmark decision by the United States Supreme Court that limited First Amendment rights of students in public schools. That decision established that public schools’ have a special interest in regulating on-campus student speech that “materially disrupts class-work or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others.” The Tinker standard holds that “[C]onduct by [a] student, in class or out of it, which for any reason—whether it stems from time, place, or type of behavior—materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others is . . . not immunized by the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech.” Yet Tinker is a fifty-year old case, and as such, it does not address the types of speech we often see from students today – tweets, chats, stories and other social media modalities that reach hundreds of people in a variety of different locations and at different times, depending on when the speaker’s audience of online “friends” check their smartphones or computers. Whereas students at the time of the Tinker decision were engaging in speech during school hours, with and to classmates on school grounds, public school students’ speech today has the potential to “materially disrupt[] classwork or involve[] substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others” even when the student is nowhere near the school and the speech takes place after school hours. 

In our recent political climate, the First Amendment and protected speech have been prevalent topics of public discourse. The conversation around our constitutionally protected right to express ourselves freely often focuses on the words and actions of adults, especially adults in the public eye. But free speech is a right that extends to children as well, and now our nation’s highest court will be deciding how a student’s First Amendment right to free speech coexists with a public school district’s right to control certain forms of student expression.

85B1D77E-3F46-4F76-AA85-89F1119617A2-300x170Brandi Levy was 14 years old when she found out she didn’t make the varsity cheerleading squad at her high school. In response, she and a friend posted a video to Snapchat in which they put up their middle fingers and said “F— school, f— softball, f— cheer, f— everything.” The girls were off campus during non-school hours and posted to a personal social media account. But the “chat” made its way to her coaches at Pennsylvania’s Mahanoy Area High School, and in response, Brandi was cut from the cheerleading squad for the entire year. The coaches’ reasoning was that Brandi’s post violated team rules to be respectful, avoid profanity and refrain from putting any negative information regarding Cheer on the internet. When the athletic director, principal, superintendent and school board all refused to reverse the decision of the cheerleading coaches, Brandi and her parents filed a federal lawsuit with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

In 2017, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania granted Brandi’s request for a preliminary injunction stopping the school from removing her from the cheerleading squad and barring it from enforcing its ban on students’ speech off campus. The court found that, at that stage of the proceedings, Brandi had successfully shown the court that she was likely to succeed on the merits of her case and suspending her violated her First Amendment rights. The court based this decision on its view that Brandi’s off campus speech was not disruptive to the school’s operations and therefore, the school had no authority to control it. Brandi rejoined the JV squad for her sophomore year, but her lawsuit was years from being over. In the meantime, she continued cheering, making varsity both her junior and senior years.

A former employee of Donald Trump’s 2016 Campaign has won a major legal victory against her former employer. Denson v. Donald J. Trump for President, Inc., Slip Copy, 2021 WL 1198666 (S.D.N.Y. March 30, 2021). Jessica Denson has won a summary judgment motion against the Campaign barring it from enforcing overly broad and vague non-disclosure and non-disparagement clauses contained in her Employment Agreement. The District Court for the Southern District of New York found in favor of plaintiff Jessica Denson and against defendant Donald J. Trump For President, Inc. and declared the Campaign’s non-disclosure and non-disparagement provisions invalid and unenforceable as unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

New Jersey Employment LaywersDenson argued that the non-disclosure and non-disparagement provisions of the Employment Agreement are unenforceable under New York law for several reasons, including that they restrict employee speech ad infinitum, their definition of confidential information is practically all-encompassing, they restrict speech on political matters and other topics of public concern, they threaten employees with severe financial penalties for breach, and they prevent employees from reporting misconduct in the workplace. In response, the Campaign claimed, among other things, that its privacy interests outweighed employee rights to unfettered free speech, and employees had waived their First Amendment rights anyway by signing the Employment Agreement.  Also in response to Denson’s claims that the non-disclosure and non-disparagement clauses were overbroad prohibitions on free speech and therefore unenforceable, the Campaign argued that she had failed to adequately identify how they had hindered her speech. Specifically, the Campaign pointed to Denson’s public statements expressing her negative opinions of the Campaign and former President Donald Trump, which she had posted on social media platforms over the past couple of years, allegedly without any legal action being taken against her. The Campaign even went so far as to confirm that it has no plans to enforce the non-disclosure or non-disparagement clauses against Denson in the future if she chooses to continue expressing her views. The Campaign argued that Denson could not show that the Employment Agreement “chilled” her exercise of free speech without presenting a specific, objective present or future harm.  The Court disagreed.

Relying on the reasoning of a 2010 case called Ashland Mgmt. Inc. v. Altair Invs. NA, LLC, 59 A.D.3d 97, 102 (1st Dept. 2008)aff’d as modified14 N.Y.3d 774 (2010), the Court applied a standards based test to the Employment Agreement. Specifically, the Court analyzed whether the clauses at issue were “reasonable in time and area, necessary to protect the employer’s legitimate interests, not harmful to the general public and not unreasonably burdensome to the employee.” As to the scope of the clauses, the Court found them to be essentially unlimited. The Campaign had defined “confidential Information” to include a variety of vague categories without clear definitions or limits. In fact, the Court was unpersuaded by the Campaign’s argument that certain categories of information are integral to the Campaign’s privacy interest, such as campaign strategy and communications. The Court found that even with respect to those categories of legitimate interest, the terms were not adequately defined, and thus were broad enough to cover any information at all relating to the Campaign. Recognizing that the Campaign has a legitimate interest in protecting certain information from disclosure, the Court still held that the non-disclosure provision was not written narrowly enough. “Indeed, the vagueness and breadth of the provision is such that a Campaign employee would have no way of knowing what may be disclosed, and accordingly Campaign employees are not free to speak about anything concerning the Campaign. The non-disclosure provision is thus much broader than what the Campaign asserts is necessary to protect its legitimate interests, and therefore is not reasonable.”

In Manchester, a township in Ocean County, New Jersey where 92% of its approximately 43,000 residents are white, a star high school basketball player’s attempt to speak out against issues of race discrimination and inequity was shut down by the Board of Education. At the most recent Board meeting, star basketball player Destiny Adams, presented a thoughtful speech to the Board to persuade them that the girls basketball team should be permitted to wear Black Lives Matter sweatshirts during the pregame warmup to their first game of the season, which took place Tuesday, January 26. Destiny was supported at the meeting by her mother, an attorney, and her father, the principal of Manchester High School, both of whom also spoke. Without discussing her proposal among the members of the Board or taking an official vote on it, the Board denied her request, stating that warmup gear may only display the school’s name.

fullsizeoutput_3c-1-300x169In speaking to news media, Destiny said of the Board’s decision, “They told me no, but that can’t really silence me, so we needed to find a way around it”. In fact, Destiny and most of her teammates wore Black Lives Matter sweatshirts prior to their season opener last night against Jackson Liberty High School despite the Board’s ruling. Destiny and another teammate also wore socks that said Black Lives Matter, while another player wrote Black Lives Matter on her sneakers.

According to the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, what players wear during pregame warmups is determined at the school’s discretion. From a legal standpoint, the question is how to balance public school students’ First Amendment right to freedom of expression with a school’s right to ensure the school environment is not disrupted and the rights of one student do not infringe on the rights of another.

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The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of a public employee who alleges she was terminated by her public employer for inquiring into a complaint that she had been illegally recorded during a conversation with a union leader.  In reversing the district court’s decision, the court reinforced the separation of a public employee’s speech in their capacity as a private citizen in comparison to what they say in their capacity as a public employee.  This case is a reminder that public employees do not waive their First Amendment rights by accepting public employment and have job protections when they engage in protected activity under the United States Constitution.  

In this case entitled Javitz v. County of Lucerne, the plaintiff, Donna Javitz’s was employed as the director of human resources for Lucerne County.  During her employment, Ms. Javitz’s alleges that she made a report to the district attorney that she had allegedly been illegally recorded when she met a union leader in her official capacity. The county manager told Javitz and the district attorney to drop the matter, but Javitz followed up with questions on the status of the investigation regarding the recording. Suddenly, her relationship with her employer became rocky and Javitz was abruptly terminated. Javitz claimed that her termination was in retaliation for reporting the alleged illegal recording to the district attorney. 

The county employer alleged that Javitz had been working within her capacity as a public employee when she was inquiring about the status of the investigation and therefore no First Amendment violation existed. The district court agreed and cited to the Lucerne County Code of Ethics as the source by which it found her conduct in reporting the illegal activity to be within her official capacity as a county employee. Because the action was within her duties as an employee, the District Court concluded that the report did not qualify as speech protected by the First Amendment. 

A recent federal court decision serves as a reminder of the extremely high burden a litigant has in order to close court proceedings from the public.  In our judicial system, the doors of the courthouse open in assuring the public’s right to access to the judicial process. This federal court decision is being considered by many as a victory for the public’s freedom to access judicial information.

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In the federal case, Silvka v. YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region, a Colorado District Court struck down the defendant employer’s motion for a gag order and a motion to restrict. In the opinion, Chief Judge Brimmer’s provided a thorough explanation and insight into the public’s right to have access to judicial proceedings. The order also reflected the core principle’s espoused in Professor Eugene Volokh’s objection to the motions raised by the YMCA; that the First Amendment and the common law assert a public right to access court proceedings whether civil or criminal in nature. 

The motion for a gag order came as a result of Silvka’s complaint against the YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region. The complaint alleged that a YMCA manager sexually harassed and forcibly groped the former employee and that the YMCA failed to conduct a proper investigation into her complaints.  The allegations of the sexual harassment lawsuit include a hostile work environment that involved employees binge drinking, and male upper level personnel abusing their power by coercing young female employees to have sex with them in order to advance in the organization. Silvka claimed to be the latest victim of this culture in her complaint. In response to the complaint and its publication by local news outlets in Colorado, the YMCA sought to impose a gag order fearing the complaint’s publication would prejudice a jury against them. 

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals issued a defeat to President Donald Trump and more importantly a victory for First Amendment Rights in July, finding that the President could not block individuals on the social media platform Twitter. In the matter, Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University v. Trump, — F.3d –, 2019 WL 2932440 (2d Cir. July 9, 2019), the Second Circuit upheld the Southern District of New York’s ruling that the President’s Twitter account was effectively a public forum.  Based on this finding, the Court held that President Trump could not restrict certain individuals’ access to his Twitter account because to do so would constitute “viewpoint discrimination” in violation of the First Amendment.

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In his opinion, Circuit Judge Barrington Parker highlighted that though the account was made in 2009, before President Trump was elected, the account has become at least temporarily a government-controlled account and qualifies as a public forum. The opinion noted that the account had been used for governmental purposes in the past. This was made evident when the account was used to announce meetings with foreign leaders, or when it was used to announce the nominations of high-ranking officials, like Christopher Wray as the new Director of the FBI. Because the account was used in an “official capacity” to make announcements regarding governmental activity, the Second Circuit found that the President was likewise acting “in the same capacity when he blocks those who disagree with him.”

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:

Susan Parsons seeks relief from restrictions on her ability to speak to media

HOLMDEL, NEW JERSEY (MAY 6, 2019)–Wall Township former yearbook advisor and teacher Susan Parsons, who was thrown into the center of a high profile high school yearbook controversy in 2017, filed a civil rights lawsuit in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Monmouth County on Monday against the Wall Township Board of Education (BOE) as well as Wall Township High School Superintendent Cheryl Dyer, seeking redress for violations of her First Amendment right to free speech.

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