For Your Eyes Only?

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Is a parent's letter to a teacher a confidential document? A federal judge has ruled that it could be, allowing a civil rights lawsuit against a Louisiana district to proceed.

The case concerns a letter that Debra Warner wrote to her son Scott's 7th grade teacher in 1992 saying she did not want him exposed to "propaganda" about the Holocaust. The class at Chalmette Middle School was planning a field trip to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Her letter went on to say she believed study guides, field trips, and movies related to the Holocaust were meant to "stifle criticism of Israel for treatment of non-Jews living under their occupation." Teacher Sharon Zeller showed the letter to several colleagues.

Three years later, Warner ran for a seat on the governing council of St. Bernard Parish. One of Zeller's colleagues recalled the Holocaust letter and alerted a New Orleans newspaper, the Times-Picayune, which obtained a copy of the letter from Zeller and published a story about it. (The paper also reported Warner's alleged ties to white-supremacy groups.)

When Warner lost the election, she filed a federal lawsuit against the parish school board, the teacher, and administrators, arguing that the release of the letter violated the federal Family and Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The lawsuit reportedly seeks $1.4 million in damages.

In a February ruling, U.S. District Judge Henry Mentz Jr. rejected the district's request for summary judgment without a trial. He said it was a factual matter for a jury to decide.

"The letter, arguably, is directly related to Scott in that it addresses subject matter his mother wished to be excluded from his education," Judge Mentz wrote. "Just because Warner had previously expressed her views on the Holocaust to the media did not necessarily mean she waived any right of confidentiality."

—Mark Walsh

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