A federal district judge has ruled that a high school teacher violated the free speech rights of a Michigan student by removing him from class for expressing views that he didn’t “accept gays” because of his Roman Catholic faith.
U.S. District Judge Patrick J. Duggan of Detroit awarded nominal damages of $1 to Daniel Glowacki, who was a junior at Howell High School in the fall of 2010 when the events at issue occurred.
In a case that, “highlights a tension that exists between public school anti-bullying policies and the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech,” as he put it, the judge further held that the Howell Public School District was not liable in the case because it removed any record of discipline from the student’s file and has speech and anti-bullying policies that respect students’ First Amendment rights.
The June 19 decision in Glowacki v. Howell Public School District is recommended reading for anyone in the education and legal communities grappling with issues of gay rights, religious speech by students, and bullying.
“Public schools must strive to provide a safe atmosphere conducive to learning for all students while fostering an environment that tolerates the expression of different viewpoints, even if unpopular, so as to equip students with the tools necessary for participation in a democratic society,” Judge Duggan said.
According to court papers, an anti-gay-bullying lesson in teacher Jay McDowell’s economics class led to an exchange with Glowacki in which the student said he had difficulty accepting gays because of his Catholic faith. The teacher became emotional, according to deposition testimony cited by the judge, and compared the student’s statement to saying, “I don’t accept blacks.”
When Glowacki stood by his views, the teacher asked him to leave the class and wrote up a referral for unacceptable behavior. When asked about the move by the remaining students, McDowell said a student could not voice an opinion that “creates an uncomfortable learning environment for another student,” according to court papers.
As noted above, Glowacki faced no other discipline from school administrators, and he transferred to another economics class. McDowell, meanwhile, was reprimanded by the district.
Glowacki and his mother sued the teacher and the school district with the help of the Thomas More Law Center, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based conservative legal organization, which sought only the nominal damages. The American Civil Liberties Union and its Michigan affiliate joined the case on the student’s side, as well.
Judge Duggan held that Glowacki’s comments in class were protected speech that were not disruptive and did not infringe on the rights of other students.
“The court does not believe that Daniel’s comments, addressed as they were to McDowell during a classroom discussion initiated by McDowell, impinged upon the rights of any individual student,” the judge said.
Judge Duggan further held that the teacher violated the student’s First Amendment rights by engaging in viewpoint discrimination, and that he was not entitled to qualified immunity.
“As a reasonable teacher, McDowell should have known that Daniel’s protected speech could not serve as the basis for discipline or as the basis for believing a school district policy was violated,” the judge said.
Despite winning its claims only against the teacher and not the school district, the Thomas More Law Center praised the decision in a news release.
“The purpose of our lawsuit was to protect students’ constitutional rights to free speech, defend religious liberty, and stop public schools from becoming indoctrination centers for the homosexual agenda,” Richard Thompson, the center’s president and chief counsel, said in the release.
An area radio station, WHMI, reported on its website that McDowell said that with the judge’s ruling it was “time to move on and focus on the business of teaching students.”
A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.