Court Backs School Board on Restriction of Reporter

By Mark Walsh — May 15, 2009 1 min read
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Members of a Virginia school board were entitled to qualified immunity from a lawsuit alleging that they illegally barred a newspaper reporter from the grounds of a public school, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., came in the case of a community newspaper reporter, Earl F. Cole, who was barred from Buchanan County schools after several incidents, including one where he entered an elementary school and photographed students without reporting to the principal’s office. Some community members also expressed concerns that the reporter hung around outside schools taking photos of students.

According to court papers, the reporter contended the banishment was retaliation for a story about a board member who sent his child to a school outside the district he represented, which was documented by a photo Cole took of the board member dropping the child off at the out-of-district school.

A federal district court had ruled that the board members were not immune from the suit because Cole had established that the board’s actions violated his First Amendment rights and that the infringed rights were clearly established.

But in its May 14 opinion in Cole v. Buchanan County School Board, the 4th Circuit panel held unanimously that the school board “has wide latitude in making determinations about access to school grounds. Such broad discretion is necessary for the board to carry out its mandate to protect students and ensure the proper functioning of the educational system.”

The board members had information about the complaints raised over Cole’s activity at the schools, and “a reasonable board member may well have believed it was his or her duty to ban Cole from school grounds in order to protect both the safety of the students and the integrity of the educational process,” the court said.

The appeals court stopped short of deciding whether Cole’s First Amendment free speech or press rights were violated, although it expressed skepticism that they were. For example, Cole could still interview students and officials off school property, the court said.

UPDATED: This post was updated to reflect that the case involves a Virginia school board, not a North Carolina one as originally written.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.