November 19, 2017

Tenth Circuit: No Clearly Established Right to Use Inflammatory Language in Course Assignment Without Being Criticized or Pressured to Make Revisions

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in Pompeo v. Board of Regents for the University of New Mexico on Tuesday, March 28, 2017.

Ms. Pompeo was a graduate student at the University of New Mexico (UNM). Ms. Pompeo filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim against the Board of Regents of UNM, and Caroline Hinkley and Susan Dever in their individual capacities, for violation of her First Amendment rights. Ms. Pompeo submitted a paper that contained language relating to a politically charged topic. The Defendants met with the student on several occasions to assist the student in rewriting the paper to include citable authority and language consistent for an academic audience. Ms. Pompeo did not rewrite the paper and claimed she was banned from the class. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the individual defendants because they were entitled to qualified immunity. The UNM Board of Regents was immune under the Eleventh Amendment. Ms. Pompeo appealed.

The Tenth Circuit exercised jurisdiction under 29 U.S.C. 1291 and it reviewed the grant for summary judgment de novo.

The court evaluated the issue of whether the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity, focusing on the whether “the right at issue was clearly established.” For a right to be clearly established, “in the light of pre-existing law the unlawfulness must be apparent.” Within the specific context of the case, the particular conduct is clearly established if “existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate.” Further, “a court must assess whether the right was clearly established against a backdrop of the objective legal reasonableness of the actor’s conduct.”

The parties agree that the dispute involved “school-sponsored speech” that “a school affirmatively promotes, as opposed to speech that it tolerates.” Educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.” Reviewing courts give “substantial deference to educators’ stated pedagogical concerns.” “Courts may override an educator’s judgment where the proffered goal or methodology was a sham pretext for an impermissible ulterior motive.” The educator may “limit or grade speech in the classroom in the name of learning and not as a pretext for punishing the student for her race, gender, economic class, religion or political persuasion.” The court found that summary judgment was appropriate in this case because the defendants’ actions were justified as truly pedagogical.

Ms. Pompeo argued that the right is clearly established by precedent that “an instructor cannot restrict a student’s speech based on the instructor’s hostility to the viewpoint expressed in the speech and pretextual explanation for the legitimate reason for the restriction of speech will not pass constitutional muster.” The court rejected this argument. “Our jurisprudence “entrusts to educators these decisions that require judgments based on viewpoints.” Further, “clearly established law would not put defendants on notice that such conduct is unconstitutional.” Therefore, under Fleming educators are not prohibited from engaging in viewpoint discrimination.”

The court stated that the inquiry into whether the pedagogical concern not well established by case law. The inquiry is either objective or subjective. However, the Tenth Circuit did not refine the inquiry in this decision because it found that the defendants are entitled to qualified immunity under either standard. “The actions taken by Hinkley and Dever were sufficiently related to pedagogical goals that the claimed unconstitutional nature of their particular conduct was not clearly established.” Additionally, the pedagogical goals were legitimate. The defendants’ actions “encouraged critical analysis, to avoid unsupported generalizations, and maintain focus on assigned material rather than a student’s general opinions.”

The court AFFIRMED the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of defendants.

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