On May 18, 2023 Parents Defending Education submitted an amicus brief in support of appellants and reversal in Henderson v. School District of Springfield R-12 in the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
This case directly implicates PDE’s mission, and its outcome will have real-world consequences for PDE’s members. While the First Amendment rights of teachers differ from those of students—i.e., the children of PDE’s members—the district court’s legal errors affect the free speech rights of both. If the district court’s decision is upheld, then K-12 students throughout the Eighth Circuit can be forced to “mouth support” for school officials’ preferred views. Cf. Janus v. Am. Fed’n of State, Cnty., & Mun. Emps., Council 31, 138 S. Ct. 2448, 2463 (2018). PDE’s mission is to prevent such outcomes.
American citizens have “the right to speak freely” or to “refrain from speaking at all.” Id. Government policies that compel them to do otherwise—or punish them for refusing to comply—violate the First Amendment. Id. Schools cannot dodge this Constitutional minimum by declining to formalize their edicts in writing. And individuals shouldn’t be subjected to crippling attorneys’ fees because they sought to exercise their First Amendment rights.
The district court held that Plaintiffs lacked standing because they had not demonstrated an injury-in-fact to their First Amendment rights. According to the district court, Plaintiffs failed to demonstrate any sort of cognizable injury because mandatory training sessions did not literally force them to speak under threat of discipline and because the Plaintiffs briefly expressed their views at the beginning of
the training sessions before District officials stepped in. That is incorrect. Government policies can chill speech—or compel speech—even if they do not directly prohibit anything. See, e.g., Speech First, Inc. v. Fenves, 979 F.3d 319, 336-38 (5th Cir. 2020).
As a fallback, the district court concluded that Plaintiffs were not entitled to relief under Section 1983 because the trainings were not conducted pursuant to a District policy. The district court’s main justification appeared to be that the District did not have a formal document referring to its training requirements as a “policy.” But the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that written documents are not the sine qua non of governmental policies. The existence of a policy can be established in many other ways, including through widespread practice or by the actions of a person who wields final decisionmaking authority. See, e.g., Atkinson v. City of Mountain View, Mo., 709 F.3d 1201, 1214 (8th Cir. 2013). That is the case here: the District conducted multiple training sessions, informed Plaintiffs that they were “required” to attend them, Op. 14-15, and has acknowledged that it will continue to do so in the future, see Henderson-Br. 45 n.5.
The district court’s most egregious holding, however, was its decision to impose more than $300,000 in attorneys’ fees on two public school teachers who sought to vindicate their First Amendment rights. The district court’s only justification for doing so was its conclusion that—based on its own flawed constitutional interpretation—the plaintiffs’ arguments were “frivolous.” Order 3-4. The district court never explained why it found those arguments frivolous, other than the fact that it disagreed with them
as a matter of law. If that is the proper standard for fee shifting, then few individuals would ever risk filing suit to defend their civil rights. Put differently, the district court’s approach turns the cost-shifting incentive in civil-rights cases on its head. Moreover, it is inconsistent with Eighth Circuit precedent and the decisions of the Supreme Court.
The district court’s decision on the merits and its order awarding attorneys’ fees should be reversed.