School’s chain-of-command policy is not an unconstitutional prior restraint on coach-employee’s speech.

Alert Category: Federal (Seventh Circuit)

Alert Type: Business

In a case successfully presented to the United States Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit by Bullaro & Carton, P.C. on behalf of the LaPorte Community School Corporation and its superintendent and members of the Board of Trustees, it was held that the school’s “chain-of-command” policy was not an unconstitutional prior restraint. Samuelson v. LaPorte Community School Corp., 526 F.3d 1046 (7th Cir. 2008). The plaintiff, a teacher within the school district, alleged that his contract for coaching the high school girls basketball team was not renewed in retaliation for his protected speech, and that the school’s chain-of-command policy was an unconstitutional prior restraint. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, which was upheld on appeal.

As coach, the plaintiff experienced several tumultuous and controversial seasons, which included a physical altercation with a player’s parent, two separate petitions requesting that the Board not renew his contract by members of the team and representatives of families in the community, and an occasion where the team refused to play under his coaching. Following these events, the superintendent provided the plaintiff with a memorandum describing his concerns regarding the plaintiff’s conduct, including his refusal to comply with the school’s chain-of-command policy by taking complaints directly to Board members without first speaking to his supervisors. The memorandum warned that the failure to comply with school policies in the future could result in discipline or termination. Subsequently, the Board voted to not renew the plaintiff’s coaching contract, based on the recommendations of the superintendent, principal, and athletic director. However, the plaintiff alleged that the his non-renewal was actually motivated by a desire to retaliate against him for his voicing of concerns regarding Title IX compliance in the past and his criticism of various school-related issues to individual Board members outside of the school’s chain-of-command policy.

The Court found that the record firmly supported the conclusion that the plaintiff’s coaching contract was not renewed because of the troubled state of the girls’ basketball program, rather than any of the plaintiff’s claimed protected expression. The 7th Circuit went on to hold that the school’s chain-of-command policy, which required staff members to refer “matters requiring administrative action” to a department supervisor before addressing them to the Board, was not an unconstitutional prior restraint. According to the Court, the policy merely addressed unprotected speech regarding the public employee’s professional duties, and did not restrict speech protected by the First Amendment.