A Ninth Circuit panel ruled March 17 that school employees did violate the First Amendment rights of the owner of Oak Glen’s Riley’s American Heritage Farms when they canceled field trips due to political comments he made, but that the defendants cannot be held for damages because his right was not clearly established.
James Riley claimed the Claremont Unified School District, three school administrators and the school board infringed on his free speech rights.
The appellate panel affirmed the California Central District Court’s dismissal of Riley’s claim for damages because the defendants held qualified immunity from certain legal claims due to them being government employers.
The panel also reversed the court’s summary judgment against Riley’s claim for injunctive relief, finding that the school district might still have an unconstitutional policy against Riley’s Farm.
Riley had tweeted on his personal Twitter account that his generation might have been the last to have been born with only two genders, that it is therapeutic to yell a Cherokee war chant when Elizabeth Warren appears on MSNBC and that an ice sculpture of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) was more human and had more color than Gillibrand does in person.
He also tweeted a mock TV-show description: “‘Missing ISIS’ Heartwarming story of a former Jihad fighter, now readjusting to life as a BLM protestor.”
In August 2018, a kindergartener’s mother complained to Chaparral Elementary School, saying she did not feel comfortable with her son “patronizing an establishment whose owner (and/or family/employees) might be inclined to direct bigoted opinions towards my child.”
Multiple parents at Danbury Elementary School also requested their principal excuse their children from attending field trips at Riley’s Farm, and a former parent complained to a school board member.
Superintendent James Elsasser asked the district’s administrators to ask the teachers if they were still interested in attending Riley’s Farm field trips in the future, and said in a deposition that he considered some of Riley’s comments to be racist, sexist or homophobic.
Assistant Superintendent for Educational Services Julie Olesniewicz directed the school district’s principals not to attend the farm’s field trips, after no administrator, teacher or staff member expressed desire to continue going to Riley’s Farm.
Riley and Riley’s Farm filed an action Oct. 12, 2018, claiming the school district, school administrators and the school board violated Riley’s First Amendment rights.
The district court dismissed the school district based on sovereign immunity, and then granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, which Riley appealed.
No clearly established right
The ruling stated that, although the defendants did violate Riley’s free speech, the defendants held qualified immunity from damages because there was not a clearly established right for the form of speech Riley was making at the time.
Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that protects government officials from civil rights lawsuits unless the official clearly violated someone’s civil right.
“A government official is entitled to qualified immunity from a claim for damages unless the plaintiff raises a genuine issue of fact showing (1) ‘a violation of a constitutional right,’ and (2) that the right was ‘clearly established at the time of [the] defendant’s alleged misconduct,’” the ruling said.
“We ask whether in September 2018, when these events occurred, it was clearly established that a school district could not cease patronizing a company providing historical reenactments and other events for students because the company’s principal shareholder had posted controversial tweets that led to parental complaints. We conclude that there was no case directly on point that would have clearly established that the School District’s reaction to parental complaints and media attention arising from Riley’s tweets was unconstitutional,” the ruling says.
Free speech violated
The ruling found that the school district did violate Riley’s First Amendment rights through use of the Pickering Connick test, in which the free speech rights of school employees are weighed against the interests of a government employer.
The panel treated Riley as a government contractor.
Although the Pickering framework would allow a government official to restrict a contractor’s First Amendment right if the speech would have substantially disrupted the government’s goal, the panel found that the school district would not have been disrupted enough to meet that bar.
Riley’s tweets were made on his personal Twitter account. There was no allegation that he made any controversial statements during a field trip, or that he interacted with the students at all during the trips.
The defendants provided the complaints of two parents, only one of which has a student currently enrolled in the school district, and only a handful of parents requested that their child be excused from the trip, the panel said.
Claim for injunctive relief
The panel found that the district court incorrectly granted summary judgment against Riley’s injunctive relief claim, which requested a court order to force the school district to resume offering field trips to Riley’s Farm. The district court will now have to try Riley’s claim for injunctive relief.
There is a genuine issue of fact whether the school district might still hold a policy against attending Riley’s Farm field trips, and that the policy would continue unconstitutionally violating Riley’s First Amendment rights if it did exist, the panel found.
When the district court denied the motion for injunctive relief, they first did so on the basis of qualified immunity, the appellate ruling stated. The district court later admitted that was done in error, but held that there was no evidence that the school defendants had a standing policy against Riley’s Farm, rendering the error harmless, the appellate panel stated.
California Central District Judge Jesus Bernal presided over the case in district court.
Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal Judge Sandra S. Ikuta wrote the ruling, which Mark J. Bennett and Ryan D. Nelson joined.
Thomas Eastmond of Irvine’s Enterprise Counsel Group argued for Riley. David Robinson of the same firm, and William Becker Jr. and Jeremiah D. Graham of Los Angeles’ Freedom X, also represented Riley.
Daniel S. Modafferi of Carlsbad’s Meyers Fozi & Dwork, LLP argued for the defendants, helped by Golnar Fozi of the same firm.
Case number 5:18-cv-02185.
Appellate number No. 20-55999.