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Friday, April 01, 2022

"Don't say gay suit" filed

Complaint here (my wife is friends with two of the plaintiffs). I am trying to figure out whether this runs into some standing/11th Amendment/EPY problems from not having the correct defendants.

The law prohibits schools and teachers from discussing certain topics in and out of class and requires schools to report LGBT+ students to their families; it subjects teaches, administrators, and school boards to suit by random objecting parents. Plaintiffs are a collection of advocacy organizations, students, parents, and one teacher; defendants are DeSantis, State Board of Ed, BoE members, Commissioner of Education, and several school boards.

Despite the similarity of the private-enforcement scheme Florida adopted, most plaintiffs do not have the SB8 problem. Their rights are violated because teachers, administrators, schools, and school boards--fearing private suit and liability under the law--follow this invalid law in allowing or not allowing certain speech and in doing or not doing certain things. In essence, the state legislature compels local governments to violate students' rights by siccing parents on those local governments for failing to violate students' rights. Although limiting speech and discriminating out of fear of suit rather than (necessarily) a desire to stifle expression or to discriminate, teachers and school boards in following this law in the classroom act under color of state law and violate students' and parents' rights. So I think a violation is sufficiently imminent if a student can allege "I have two mothers and it is clear that teachers will not allow any discussion of my parents in class because this law exists and they are worried about being sued."

The one plaintiff who might have a problem is the teacher, who is subject to enforcement only by a private suit by an as-yet unidentified parent, but no government sanction; that teacher is similarly situated to an abortion provider under SB8, in that he protected speech is chilled by the threat of suit by an unknown rando. The teacher's claim might depend on how the BoE or a local school board implements the law and whether they impose governmental sanction on a teacher apart from any private lawsuit. For example, does the school threaten to fire or sanction teachers who violate the law and gets sued? Or does the school threaten not to indemnify-and-defend a teacher who gets sued for violating this law? That would constitute further government action disadvantaging that teacher because of her constitutionally protected conduct and in furtherance of an invalid law.

That said, jurisdictional/procedural questions remain. Although DeSantis is the villain in the complaint's narrative (and really any narrative in this verkakte state), I doubt he is a proper defendant, because he plays no role in enforcement. I also wonder if a court might find some claims, although against a proper defendant, premature. Perhaps the necessary imminent harm to the plaintiffs depends on further action by someone  to put the statutory limits into action--a school or board imposing regulations with some penalties or a teacher actually silencing that student with two mothers who wants to draw a picture of her family.

I have focused on the procedure and jurisdiction rather than the substantive constitutional violations at this point. Some seem iffy. There is a First Amendment claim based on a right to receive information. But a student or parent does not have a First Amendment right to dictate the curriculum, so cannot base a violation from the school refusing to teach certain matters in the classroom. The question is whether equal protection adds something when that curricular decision is motivated by discriminatory animus (there are 14th Amendment and Title IX claim in the mix for that purpose). Or whether vagueness adds something because no one can figure out what the curriculum is.

The complaint makes noise (although does not base a claim) on the use of "diffuse" private enforcement as nefarious and invalid. I obviously reject the argument here for the same reasons I reject it as to SB8.

Update: And just like that: A parent in St. John's County complained about a teacher wearing a "Protect Trans Kids" t-shirt at school, and the school administration asked the teacher to change shirts (which she did). This is not directly about the new law; district policy prohibits teachers from wearing clothing or apparel with written messages. But I wonder if the regulation was honored more in the breach and that this (and other) teachers wore message-bearing clothing without incident. And if the new law empowered the parent to complain, where most parents let it go. The story illustrates a couple of things. First, it shows how we get state action from civil enforcement, unlike in SB8--legally empowered parent complains, school takes action, school's actions violate rights. Second, it shows what the legal arguments might look like. If teachers regularly wear message-bearing clothing but only the teacher with the pro-LGBTQ+ message is asked to change out of fear of suit under the new law, it helps plaintiffs establish standing by showing that having to change shirts was not caused by the neutral policy (which is ignored anyway) but by the school's actions in response to the new law.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on April 1, 2022 at 03:03 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink

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