Court Will Review Teacher's Right to Damagesin Free-Speech Case
Washington--The U.S. Supreme Court last week agreed to review the validity of a $321,000 jury award to a Michigan biology teacher who was suspended because of parents' objections to his course on human reproduction.
The issue in Memphis Community Schools v. Stachura (Case No. 85-410) is how courts should compensate individuals whose "substantive" constitutional rights, such as free expression--as opposed to their 14th Amendment due-process rights--have been violated. The decision could apply to suits seeking damages from public officials and municipalities for violations of those rights.
Since the 1870's, when the 14th Amendment was enacted, courts have sought to distinguish the substantive freedoms guaranteed under the Constitution from procedural rights designed to protect those freedoms.
Michigan Teacher's Suit
The Memphis, Mich., case began in 1979, when Edward J. Stachura was suspended with pay following protests by a group of parents over his 7th-grade sex-education course.
According to court papers, Mr. Stachura was depicted by the local media as a "sex maniac" and was told by the superintendent of schools that he would "never see the inside of a Memphis classroom again."
Mr. Stachura filed a grievance but subsequently withdrew it and filed suit against the school board and some of the protesting parents in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, alleging that his First Amendment free-speech rights and 14th Amendment due-process rights were violated and that he suffered property damage because of his suspension and the negative publicity surrounding the controversy.
The jury in the district-court case supported Mr. Stachura's claim and awarded him $275,000 in compensatory damages and $46,000 in punitive damages.
The jury award was upheld by both U.S. District Judge James Harvey in 1983 and a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit early this year. The Memphis school board appealed the decision to the high court.
In its argument, the school board contends that Mr. Stachura suffered little actual injury and that damages should not have been awarded based upon the "intrinsic value" of his constitutional rights.
School officials point out that Mr. Stachura was suspended with pay and subsequently reinstated; he still teaches for the Memphis schools.
The courts that have heard the case, however, have found that Mr. Stachura suffered actual losses. "Substantial as are the jury awards," said the appeals-court opinion, "it is clear to us that the damages that Stachura suffered will affect his professional career for his entire lifetime. ... There may be many doors closed to him in his future which otherwise would have been open."
The school officials base their case on the Supreme Court's 1978 decision in Carey v. Piphus, in which the Justices held that before a party can be awarded damages under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 for deprivation of procedural due-process rights, he must prove "actual injury resulting from [this] deprivation." Section 1983 holds public officials liable for constitutional violations.
Federal appellate courts have given conflicting views on how Carey affects cases involving substantive constitutional guarantees. The school board called on the Court to clarify the issue.
The board's brief cites a 1983 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
That court ruled, according to the school-board brief, that "Carey does apply to substantive constitutional violations since 'the problems asso-ciated with leaving juries free to guess at the inherent value of constitutional rights are equally germane to the two kinds of suits."'
Arguments have not been scheduled yet in the Memphis case.
Justices Decline Review
In other action last week, the Justices declined to review two education-related cases:
Parks v. Belletire (No. 84-1919), a case involving the Education for All Handicapped Children's Act of 1975. In the case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that the state need not "reimburse parents for the amounts that they had wrongfully been required to pay to their [handicapped] children's private schools."
The circuit-court panel's unanimous decision came early this year, before the Supreme Court's decision in a similar case, Burlington v. Massachusetts. The parents in the Parks case, representing their handicapped son and others in the class action, claim Burlington is "directly contrary" to the Parks ruling.
In Burlington, the Court unanimously ruled that parents were entitled to private-school tuition under P.L. 94-142 if the placement was later justified. But the circumstances and questions in Parks, experts note, are different from those in Burlington.
Los Angeles Unified School District v. Los Angeles naacp and Los Angeles naacp v. Los Angeles Unified School District (No. 85-27 and No. 85-213). Last December, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit allowed six chapters of the naacp to argue in federal court that the school district had discriminated against minority students since 1969. A similar charge was argued in state court from 1969 to 1981.
In asking the Justices to hear its appeal of the ruling, the state argued that only alleged discrimination since 1981 should be the subject of the federal-court trial, which will reportedly begin next spring or summer.