BURLEY — A U.S. District Court ruled partially in favor of nine Burley High School cheerleaders saying their First Amendment rights were violated when they were removed from the cheer squad for holding a protest sit-in at the school in 2017.
The judge ruled that the students’ First Amendment rights were violated, but declined to rule on a claim that the students were denied access to the school district’s grievance process. That claim will be heard at a later trial.
“While disappointed in the ruling, it is only one part of a two-part question, and the district is working with its legal counsel to hopefully reach a fair resolution and to ensure the district can focus on the educational goals and needs of our students,” the school district wrote in a statement to the Times-News.
Chief U.S. District Court Judge David Nye granted the partial summary judgment on July 26 in the case against the Cassia County School District, Burley High School, former Superintendent Gaylen Smyer, Assistant Superintendent Sandra Miller and Principal Levi Power.
In the lawsuit, the students claimed the district and employees violated their First Amendment rights by punishing them for a sit-in held to protest unfair treatment by a coach and by denying them the right to the district’s grievance policy after the students refused to sign off on conditions related to them being reinstated on the team.
The students’ parents filed the lawsuit after their daughters were permanently removed from the high school cheerleading squad after staging a sit-in at school to protest conflicts with the school’s new cheerleading coach, Laine Mansfield.
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The suit said Mansfield forbid team members from associating with certain students, failed to properly address safety concerns related to cheerleading stunts, selectively and unfairly enforced attendance rules and “degraded (cheerleaders) and their cheerleading abilities during practices. These comments went beyond the critical motivation that some coaches direct at their athletes.”
The court also dismissed claims against Miller and Smyer in regards to the sit-in because the parents said they were no longer pursuing those claims.
The judge said students in public schools do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.
“As (the) Supreme Court has stated the enduring lesson of First Amendment law is that the government may not prohibit expression simply because it disagrees with its message,” the analysis says.
A school can regulate student speech if the speech “materially and substantially disrupts the work and discipline of the school, or is vulgar or lewd,” the analysis says.