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Articles Tagged with Student Rights

pictogram-884043_1280Two weeks ago the First Circuit heard oral argument in a case that touches on some of the most hot-button issues in education law: student speech rights and discrimination against LGBTQ students. In L.M. v. Town of Middleborough, the Court must decide whether the Middleborough public schools could tell a student he was not allowed to wear a t-shirt that says: “There are only two genders.”  

The case started in March 2023, when seventh grader L.M. wore a shirt to school that said “there are only two genders.” L.M. made this political statement against a backdrop – according to the school—of repeated concerns at the school about bullying of LGBTQ students and several students at the school contemplating or attempting to die by suicide, including students who attributed those actions to anti-LGBTQ experiences at the school. After receiving complaints from students and staff, the principal told L.M. he had to take the shirt off if he wanted to go back to class. L.M. declined, and his parents picked him up and took him home for the rest of the day. L.M. was not disciplined for wearing the shirt and wore other shirts with various political messages with no incident. In May 2023 L.M. wore the shirt to school again—this time with a piece of tape that read “censored” covering the words “only two.” L.M. was sent to the principal during his first class and removed the shirt rather than be excluded from school for the rest of the day.  

The District Court Case 

pexels-armin-rimoldi-5553051-1-scaledWe frequently represent graduate students who have experienced discrimination or harassment in their programs, something that studies have indicated is unfortunately common.  The unique status of graduate students within universities affects what legal protections for discrimination apply to them. Graduate students often hold multiple roles simultaneously – student, research assistant or teaching assistant, advisee, and mentee. Their success as early-career researchers is uniquely tied to their relationships with faculty mentors and others in their discipline, meaning they may be less likely to report discrimination. But when it comes to asserting legal claims, the key issue is how their mixed status as student and employee affects what claims they can pursue.  

 
Relevant anti-discrimination statutes 

For graduate students who also carry out paid work, there are overlapping protections from discrimination under federal and state law. Various provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibit discrimination in educational programs and institutions, including Title IX (sex) and Title VI (race, color, and national origin). Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Massachusetts anti-discrimination statute, Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 151B, bar discrimination in employment. And the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits disability-based discrimination in both employment and education. Outside Massachusetts, the anti-discrimination laws of other states protect students and employees as well, often providing stronger protections than federal law. 

Photo of Yale UniversityWhen can a person accused of sexual misconduct sue the accuser for defamation? Since the #MeToo movement began, more and more people accused of sexual assault have turned to defamation lawsuits as a weapon to combat those allegations. In 2022 Johnny Depp won his defamation claim against his ex, Amber Heard, who had written an op-ed describing herself as a survivor of domestic violence, without naming Depp. (Depp was also found liable for defaming Heard when his lawyer called Heard’s claims a “hoax”). In 2020 a judge found singer Kesha had defamed her former music producer by telling a friend he had raped her; New York’s highest court recently overturned that decision, and the parties settled. A crowdsourced Google spreadsheet of allegations of sexual misconduct against men in media resulted in a lawsuit against the woman who started the spreadsheet, and a six-figure settlement for the plaintiff. Defamation claims in sexual assault cases have gone the other way too; A jury recently found that Donald Trump defamed E. Jean Carroll by calling her sexual assault allegations against him a hoax. In these high-profile instances, defamation suits have become a vehicle to set up a jury to decide whether allegations of sexual misconduct are true. CONTINUE READING ›

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Last week saw a wave of legal developments—legislative, jurisprudential, and administrative—on issues related to trans rights. While state legislatures passed laws restricting medical care for transgender minors, and barring trans women and girls from participating in school sports, federal appellate courts upheld the rights of transgender students and the Biden administration weighed in on the trans athlete issue. On April 6 the Supreme Court refused to lift a ban imposed by the Fourth Circuit on the enforcement of a West Virginia law that would prevent transgender students from competing on sports teams that corresponded to their gender while litigation about the constitutionality of the law is pending. West Virginia was attempting to enforce that law against a 12-year-old girl who wanted to run track at her middle school. That same day the U.S. Department of Education released a proposed rule that would address transgender students’ athletic participation. That rule, however, far from protecting trans students’ right to be treated equally to other members of their gender, would only prohibit a school from imposing a blanket ban on students’ participation in sports that corresponded to their genders. Schools would retain the authority to restrict trans athletes’ participation in sports if they could show that the restriction is “substantially related to the achievement of an important educational objective and (ii) minimize[s] harms to students whose opportunity to participate on a male or female team consistent with their gender identity would be limited or denied.”

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We often get calls from people wondering whether their school or their child’s school has violated their privacy rights with respect to education records, and if so, what can be done about it. While federal law provides significant privacy rights for students those rights are not absolute, and there are limited mechanisms to enforce violations. 

What is FERPA 

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is a federal law that was passed in 1974 to protect the privacy of student education records. The law applies to educational agencies and institutions that receive funds from the U.S. Department of Education. FERPA gives parents or students 18 and older (“eligible students”) the right to inspect and review students’ education records. It also gives parents and eligible students the right to request amendment of the student’s records, and the right to a hearing if the school denies the request to amend. 

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For the second time this year, the First Circuit has reversed a district court’s ruling dismissing a student’s breach of contract claim against his school, reaffirming that courts are willing to second guess school’s interpretations and applications of their own policies.

Background of the Case

In Doe v. Stonehill College the plaintiff alleged that Stonehill had violated his contract with the school, and discriminated against him in violation of Title IX, when it found him responsible for sexual misconduct in 2018 and expelled him. According to his complaint, he and student Jane Roe had had three previous consensual sexual encounters before the incident that gave rise to her Title IX complaint against him. On the night in question, he claimed that the two engaged in sexual conduct that was the same as on other nights, and to which she consented in the same way (through physical manifestations of consent) that she had on previous occasions.

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us-capitol-building-g54e7f07d2_1920Federal legislators have introduced a bill to correct absurdities in anti-discrimination law that ensure institutions are rarely held liable for egregious acts of discrimination on their campuses. As things currently stand, a school district cannot be held liable for an on-campus rape of a student even if the student had previously been harassed by the assailant and told her teacher about the harassment, but the teacher failed to report it to the right administrator at the school. Even where students can bring legal claims against their schools for the school’s failure to properly address sexual harassment, they may well walk away from such a lawsuit empty handed because plaintiffs cannot recover punitive damages and may not be able to recover emotional distress damages in civil rights lawsuits in the education context. Imagine this: a college knows that it employs a professor who has assaulted countless students over many years. The professor sexually assaults another student on campus. Despite suffering extreme mental health consequences from the assault, the student manages to stay in school and graduate on time. If the student sues the school, a court could decide that even though the school has violated the student’s rights under Title IX, the student is not entitled to any damages for the harm the school has caused. CONTINUE READING ›

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Colleges and universities have traditionally valued free expression, experimentation, and open discourse as a core part of their missions. Students and faculty should be free to speak their minds and express themselves in order to provoke discussion and achieve greater understanding. But there are limits to the legal rights to free speech on campus. What those limits are depends on factors like whether a school is public or private, and what promises have been made in university handbooks or policies. 

A public university (including state colleges and universities as well as community colleges) is subject to the limitations of the First Amendment. Under the First Amendment, speech or expression is generally protected by the Constitution unless it falls into one of a limited number of categories of unprotected speech, such as threatening speech toward another (“true threats”) and aggressive or insulting speech delivered face-to-face that is likely to provoke violence (“fighting words”). A public college usually cannot punish a student for First Amendment-protected speech unless the student or their speech is disruptive to the educational environment; this is a constitutional right that can be vindicated under Section 1983, part of the Civil Rights Act. There are also limits on the ability of a university to punish a student for off-campus speech. Faculty are also entitled to First Amendment protections, but given that they are often speaking as teachers in their roles as university employees, the school has a greater ability to control what they say in their capacities as faculty. 

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pexels-cdc-3992949-scaledIn the last year or so, I have gotten many calls from families whose children have been harassed and discriminated against in school because of their race. Repeatedly, I am hearing that students of color, often in predominately white schools, are being called the n-word by their classmates and targeted for bullying and harassment. I am hearing that these schools are disproportionately disciplining those students of color, often for vague and subjective offenses. Even more concerning, some of these families have told me that when they have reported their children’s harassment to school officials, those officials have recognized that they have a problem with white students harassing and bullying students of color but have claimed not to know how to address or prevent the harassment. Harassment and discrimination against students of color violates both federal and state laws, and schools have an obligation to take steps to address it.

Federal Anti-Discrimination Laws

Title VI is a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in any education program that receives federal funding. This includes all public K-12 schools, private K-12 schools that participate in federal programs like the National School Lunch Program, and almost all colleges and universities. Under Title VI, schools have an obligation to address racial harassment that interferes with students’ ability to access their education.

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