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Court Upholds District's Limits on Parent's Communications With School Staff

A federal appeals court has upheld a school district's plan limiting a parent's communications with school personnel over his daughter's education because the district said his interactions had become "unproductive" and some staff members felt "bullied and intimidated."

The parent, a Washington state father identified in court papers as L.F., sued the Lake Washington No. 414 School District under the First Amendment. He lost in both a federal district court and in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco.

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"We agree with the trial court that the communication plan was a reasonable effort to manage a parent's relentless and unproductive communications with district staff," said an unanimous three-judge panel on Jan. 17 in L.F. v. Lake Washington School District No 414.

L.F. is the divorced father of two daughters who suffer from anxiety and behavioral disorders. He said in court papers that he clashed with school personnel over the best way to handle his daughters' needs and over what he saw as bias against him as a divorced father.

The school district said in court papers that beginning in 2015, L.F. sent "incessant" emails to staff members accusing them of wrongdoing; made "presumptuous" demands; leveled "demeaning" insults; and in face-to-face interactions, acted in an "aggressive, hostile, and intimidating manner."

On Nov. 23, 2015, a district administrator informed L.F. that the district was imposing a communications plan, under which any substantive communications about his daughters' education would be limited to biweekly, in-person meetings with two administrators.

L.F. was advised not to "email or attempt to communicate (in any form) with any District employees" aside from the bi-weekly meetings, "as they will not respond to [his] emails or attempts to communicate," the notice said. The plan did not apply in the event of an emergency and did not bar L.F. from attending school activities.

The father observed the plan for several months, but later violated it by directly contacting staff members at one of his daughters' schools. The district cut back L.F.'s meetings from biweekly to once a month, and it refused the father's requests to lift or modify the plan.

L.F. then filed his lawsuit. A federal district court ruled against him, holding that the communication plan did not restrict his speech but merely regulated the types of communication the district would respond to.

The 9th Circuit court decision agreed.

"The communication plan on its face restricts only the district's speech and asks—but does not require—L.F. to honor it," the court said. "And the communication plan's purpose of cultivating more productive exchanges with L.F. and the district supports an inference that the district was encouraging communication from L.F., not chilling it."

The court said the district was within its rights to try to limit the father's communications to a specific channel.

"Members of the public do not have a constitutional right to force the government to listen to their views," the court said. "The communication plan addressed the manner in which L.F. communicated with the district—not the content of his speech or any viewpoints he wished to convey."

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