Historically, courts have disapproved of decisions that broadly ban persons from entering on school property based on questionable public safety concerns. Keeping in line with this precedent, on January 24, 2023, a judge of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts granted the plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction in Worthley v. School Committee of Gloucester et. al, No. 22-12060. The plaintiff sought an order barring enforcement of a no trespass order by the Gloucester Public Schools (“GPS”) which prohibited the plaintiff’s entry on Gloucester High School (“GHS”) grounds during school hours or at any school sponsored event or activity for the duration of the 2022 – 2023 school year.
The plaintiff, a member of the Gloucester City Council, was alleged to have sent inappropriate text messages to a female minor student about volunteer opportunities as well his sleeping habits and other personal interests. After learning of this exchange, the Superintendent of GPS issued a no trespass order stating that the plaintiff was “not to appear on or enter the premises of GHS during school hours or at any school sponsored event or activity from November 14, 2022 until the end of the 2022 – 2023 school year.” In response, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of the First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and also under the Massachusetts Civil Rights Law, G.L. c. 12, § 11I. He also filed a motion for a preliminary injunction.
As required when evaluating a request for injunctive relief, the judge addressed whether the plaintiff had a likelihood of success on the merits of his claims. The judge concluded that the plaintiff had satisfied this requirement regarding his First Amendment free speech claim, applying the theory that the grounds of the high school are otherwise open to the public and are therefore considered a “limited public forum”. Although content-neutral, time, place, and manner restrictions are permissible for this type of forum, they are valid only if they are narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest and leave open ample alternative channels for communication of information.
While acknowledging the school district’s significant interest in protecting student safety, the court ruled that “fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly[;]… to justify suppression of free speech there must be reasonable ground to fear that serious evil will result if free speech is practiced.” Based on the facts, the court concluded that the categorical ban from all school-sponsored events or activities at the high school was overbroad. The court also found that it was not clear that the order left open “ample alternative channels for communication”, particularly where school-sponsored events at the high school are open to the public and generally attended by other city councilors.
The Worthley decision illustrates the limits of permissible action by school districts and other public officials that implicate First Amendment rights and the extent to which any restrictions on those rights will be measured by the rules that apply to the different types of forum involved. This is a complicated legal area and the outcome will depend on case-specific facts. Officials are wise to consult with counsel before issuing a no trespass order so that it can be appropriately fashioned.
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This update is provided for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.