Dispute between student and professor leads to a lawsuit

A dispute over classroom seating arrangements led to a recent First Amendment ruling, in which the court upheld a student’s right to criticize a professor. This is an interesting case that is a blow to academic freedom.

Rowan Thompson suffers from an eye condition that makes her sensitive to light, forcing her to sit in the front three rows of a classroom to see what’s written on the whiteboard. She was enrolled in a chemistry class at Metropolitan State University in Denver.

On February 4, 2019, Thompson arrived late for class. Seeing that all the seats in the first three rows were taken, she sat down on the floor in the front row. His instructor, Dr. Lazorski, did not approve, interrupting his lecture to ask Thompson to sit down. Although Thompson informed Dr. Lazorski of her eye condition, the professor still insisted that Thompson move to a seat, and she asked the students to leave the front row so Thompson could sit there.

Cooler heads did not prevail, so when Thompson again arrived late for class a week later, Thompson sat on the floor in the front row, in a space that lacked a desk. Dr. Lazorski asked Thompson to sit down. Thompson said she preferred to sit on the floor in the front row due to her eye condition. Dr. Lazorski replied that the only options were to sit at a desk or leave the classroom. Thompson chose to leave the class.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that Thompson ultimately dropped out of Dr. Lazorski’s class because of the seating dispute “and the likelihood of it being resolved.” Thompson, however, did not consider the matter closed and asked to arbitrate the dispute. During the mediation, Thompson was encouraged to complete class assessment and assessment forms to address her concerns. The problem with this suggestion, however, was that Thompson could no longer submit a form since she was no longer registered for the class.

To solve this riddle, Thompson sent an email to his former classmates that read in part:

“Please take a few minutes to review this chemistry course and be honest – make the faculty listen to you so this course can change for the better. If not for you, only for those who had to drop out of the course feeling worthless and stupid, or for the students who will have to take this course after you. Hang in there, you’re almost done and then you can leave this semester behind!??

Several weeks later, Thompson received notice from the dean of students that his email to former classmates “may have violated the student code of conduct.” The Dean imposed a “no contact order” that prohibited Thompson from communicating with the professor, as well as “discussing Dr. Lazorski with any student in the CHE 1800 course or any of Dr. Lazorski’s courses.[.]”

Thompson filed a lawsuit against the Dean. The lower court, however, dismissed the complaint, finding that the dean enjoyed “qualified immunity” because he had not violated “a clearly established law”. The Court of Appeal overturned.

In the opinion of the Court of Appeal, the law was well established. The dean had no right to restrict the student’s speech in the absence of evidence that the speech would reasonably lead to “substantial disruption or material interference with school activities”. But Dean has offered no evidence that Thompson’s email would cause such disruption or material interference. And by presenting no evidence, the Dean had no right to discipline Thompson.

I don’t know why, but school officials seem to overreact to the speech more than any other class of public employee. It’s like getting their training from Ed Rooney in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. A lot of time and money would be saved if they relaxed.

Jack Greiner is a partner at the law firm Graydon in Cincinnati. He represents Enquirer Media on First Amendment and media matters.

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