McElhaney v. Williams (August 25, 2023).

In a late August decision , the Sixth Circuit reversed a District Court’s decision, finding in favor of a parent’s First Amendment rights, and sending a message to schools and their athletics staff regarding how they ban parents from property and events.

A school district in Tennessee found itself in federal court after it suspended a parent from attending a week’s worth of softball games. The parent, whose child played on the high school softball team, sent two lengthy texts to the coach discussing his frustration after the coach had benched his child. Subsequently, the school banned the parent from attending any softball games the following week after finding that the text messages were inappropriate and violated team policy. The parent sued the district, arguing that the district retaliated against him for exercising his constitutionally protected right to free speech.

Reviewing the District Court’s opinion, which sided with the school, the Sixth Circuit stated that the First Amendment has long protected citizen’s right to criticize public officials. The Sixth Circuit elaborated that that protection extends to parents, meaning that “schools cannot regulate the content of the parents’ speech about their child to a school employee who interacts with the child.”

The school district argued that schools have an interest in avoiding disruption, and the Sixth Circuit agreed; however, it stated that the school’s interest does not apply “to run-of-the the mill adult speech targeting school officials.” Additionally, the district argued that it had an informational sheet that it had sent out, which specifically stated that parents and coaches were not allowed to discuss playing time. However, the Sixth Circuit found that an information sheet does not override a parent’s constitutional rights. In the end, the Sixth Circuit found the speech was critical of a coach’s actions, but the speech was not threatening, harassing or disruptive, and, therefore, was protected by the First Amendment.

What does this mean for your district?

The Sixth Circuit was clear in the conclusion of its opinion:
“in this situation, it is clearly established at a low level of generality that a school official may not retaliate against the parent for the content of his speech.”

Districts should be aware that even if a school or team policy bars parents and coaches from discussing playing time, parents maintain a constitutionally protected right to address their concerns provided they do so in a non-harassing, non-threatening and non-disruptive manner. Districts should educate their staff on parents’ free speech rights, especially when it comes to parents’ right to air grievances regarding their student-athletes.