Federal Appeals Court Denies Immunity to School Officials Who Banned Father from Athletic Events

The father of a high school basketball player from Troy, N.Y., banned from school athletic events, had his First Amendment claim continue as a federal appeals court panel ruled that school officials were not entitled to qualified immunity.

The appeals court panel reasoned that a jury could find that the school athletic director banned the parent in retaliation for his negative views about school administrators.

Truman Frierson has a daughter, Shalie, who played high school basketball at Troy High School. Frierson and other parents complained about the girls’ basketball coach, Paul Bearup, who allegedly was too brusque and abusive to his players.

In January 2017, Frierson met with Joe Mariano, principal of Troy High School, and John Carmello, superintendent for the Troy City School District, to discuss the parents’ grievances. Some of the parents discussed the possibility of a team walkout. Frierson then went to basketball practice and talked with his daughter and several of her teammates.

At the next basketball game, there was no walkout. However, the athletic director, Paul Reinisch, investigated the walkout rumor and determined that Frierson may have had a role. He called Frierson on the phone and banned him from future school athletic events.

Frierson then sued several school officials in federal court on First Amendment grounds. The district court dismissed some of the defendants, but not Reinisch and Carmello. These two defendants pled qualified immunity — a doctrine that protects government officials from liability unless they violate clearly established constitutional law. The district court denied the defendants’ motion for qualified immunity.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed an interlocutor (interim) appeal in its March 26, 2020, decision in Frierson v. Reinisch.

“It is well-established that the government may not retaliate against individuals for exercising their rights under the First Amendment,” the panel wrote.

The appeals court panel also noted that a public school gymnasium that hosts athletic events for public attendance is a limited public forum and, thus, restrictions on access must be reasonable and not discriminate on the basis of viewpoint.

Here, school officials banned the father from athletic events one day after the parent exchanged words with the school principal. A rational jury could find that school officials’ motives in banning the father from athletic events “was to punish him for expressing negative views about school administrators.”

David L. Hudson Jr. is a First Amendment Fellow at the Freedom Forum Institute, and a law professor at Belmont University who publishes widely on First Amendment topics. He is the author of a 12-lecture audio course on the First Amendment titled, “Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment” (Now You Know Media, 2018). He also is the author of many First Amendment books, including “The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech” (Thomson Reuters, 2012) and “Freedom of Speech: Documents Decoded” (ABC-CLIO, 2017).

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