A school district can lawfully limit parents’ communications with a school district and its personnel according to a recent federal court of appeals decision. L.F. et. al. v. Lake Washington School Dist., #414, No. 18-35792 (9th Cir. 1/17/20) (“Lake Washington School District”).
School districts’ communications with parents can be challenging and present a bedeviling subject for school districts. Of course, school districts encourage parents to communicate with school personnel to strengthen the education process. School districts also want to keep parents informed of their children’s’ behavior, progress, and other information that is relevant to their children’s education. Simply put, good communications help school districts forge working partnerships with parents, and everyone benefits.
While the overwhelming majority of parents are thoughtful, constructive participants in their children’s education, some parents are belligerent and confrontational, or simply bury the district in a mountain of emails and other materials that school districts feel compelled to review. At times, school districts can feel that challenging parents are monopolizing their resources, damaging staff morale, and diverting their leadership’s energies. As a result, school districts strain mightily, at times, to find ways to keep parents informed and involved, while limiting counterproductive interruptions and interactions with difficult parents.
The Lake Washington School District Case
In Lake Washington School District, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals approved of a school district’s “communication plan” for the father of two girls.
The father, L.F., claimed that school personnel were biased against him and that they refused to consider his input concerning his daughters’ educations. The District, however, claimed that the father sent “incessant” emails to staff, and that he was aggressive, demeaning, intimidating, and insulting (among other things) in his dealings with school personnel.
The District ultimately imposed a communication plan to address these concerns. The plan limited substantive communications about the girls’ education to biweekly, in-person meetings with two school district administrators. L.F. was specifically advised not to email or communicate with District personnel through any means other than the biweekly meetings and that, if he did, District personnel would not respond. The plan still permitted L.F. to attend school activities or contact District personnel in an emergency. L.F. also remained free to appeal from the District’s decision not to offer his daughter a Section 504 plan.
L.F. followed the plan for a period of time. However, L.F. raised a number of issues at a meeting with his daughter’s math teacher that went well beyond the parameters that the administration had approved when the meeting was pre-approved. L.F. also began contacting staff members at his other daughter’s schools. The District responded by reducing the number of meetings that L.F. was permitted to have with the administration to once a month.
L.F. sued the District, claiming that the communication plan infringed on his right to free speech under the First Amendment. He also filed a retaliation claim under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (he did not raise this issue on appeal, however).
A federal district court rejected L.F.’s claims, concluding that the plan did not restrict his speech, but simply limited the types of communications to which the District would respond. L.F. appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The 9th Circuit panel (“Court”) concluded that the District could lawfully limit the father’s communication to a specific medium (in this case, the biweekly meetings). The Court stated that “[m]embers of the public do not have a constitutional right to force the government to listen to their views.” The Court added that the First Amendment does not compel the government to respond to speech directed toward it.
As a result, the Court concluded that while L.F. could certainly speak, the District had no Constitutional obligation to listen or respond. Thus, the Court reasoned that the communication plan — strictly speaking — regulated the District’s conduct instead of L.F.’s, because it did not restrict his speech at all; it simply advised L.F. of what the government would and would not do with respect to his speech.
The Court went on to note that even if the communication plan restricted L.F.’s speech, it still did not violate his First Amendment rights. In this regard, the Court held that classrooms and other government property at issue did not constitute a “public forum” for purposes of citizen speech. Consequently, the Court ruled that the communication plan was a reasonable effort to manage a parent’s “relentless and unproductive communications” with school district personnel.
Lake Washington School District reminds school districts that they are not required to weather incessant communications from hostile parents or guardians. Communication plans can be crafted that meet Constitutional requirements, while still allowing parents to participate in their children’s educations.
 This article uses the term “parents” to briefly describe one representative group of adults that bears responsibility for their children’s education and for communicating with school district personnel on their children’s behalf. It is recognized that guardians, stepparents, foster parents, and any number of other persons will also fulfill the role of a “parent” in managing children’s education, including by communicating with school district personnel.