May a South Dakota school district restrict a student's speech in extracurricular activities?

Maybe. The First Amendment speech rights of public school students engaged in extracurricular activities occupy a very difficult balancing test between individual expression and a school district's curriculum. However, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals' (the federal appeals court that includes South Dakota) decision in Wildman v. Marshalltown School District, provides some guidance to our state's public school districts in dealing with this important issue.

INTRODUCTION

In Wildman v. Marshalltown School District, a high school student athlete sued the school principal, school athletic director, varsity girls' basketball coach, and school district, alleging that they violated her rights under the First Amendment when they conditioned her continued participation on the sophomore basketball team on her apologizing to her teammates for writing a letter which criticized the varsity coach. 

FACTS

In January 1998, Rebecca Wildman was a sophomore student at Marshalltown High School in Marshalltown, Iowa, and a member of the school’s basketball team. Wildman hoped to play on the varsity team and she testified that Coach Rowles, the high school girls’ varsity basketball coach, promised in conversations with her before the season that he would promote her to the varsity team. When the promotion never happened, Wildman testified that she “became frustrated and decided to write a letter to [her] teammates” and that her “purpose was to find out what they thought of the situation and Coach Rowles.” She composed a letter on her home computer and distributed it to her teammates in the school’s locker room. The letter stated:

To all of my teammates:

Everyone has done a great job this year and now is the time that we need to make ourselves stronger and pull together. It was a tough loss last night but we will get it back. We have had some bumps in the road to success but every team does and the time is here for us to smoothen it out. Everyone on this team is important whether they think so or not. After watching last nights [sic] Varsity game and seeing their sophomores play up I think and I think [sic] that some of you are think [sic] the same thing. I think that we have to fight for our position. Am I the only one who thinks that some of us should be playing Varsity or even JV? We as a team have to do something about this. I want to say something to Coach Rowles. I will not say anything to him without the whole teams [sic] support. He needs us next year and the year after and what if we aren't there for him? It is time to give him back some of the bull[----] that he has given us. We are a really great team and by the time we are seniors and we ALL have worked hard we are going to have an AWESOME season. We deserve better then [sic] what we have gotten. We now need to stand up for what we believe in!!!

The following week, Wildman's sophomore team coach received a telephone call from a parent of one of Wildman's teammates, who expressed concern about the letter her daughter brought home from the locker room. Coach Rowles also received a copy of the letter.  Both coaches met with the athletic director and principal to discuss how to handle the matter. The coaches later met with Wildman alone to discuss the letter with her. They told her the letter was disrespectful and demanded that she apologize to her teammates. 

Wildman claimed that they did not ask her to explain what she hoped to accomplish with her letter. Wildman contended that she did not advocate a strike or boycott but that the school did not give her a chance to explain herself before setting the condition for her continued participation in the basketball program. The coaches gave her twenty-four hours to apologize, and, if she did not, she would not be allowed to return to the team. Wildman refused to apologize and did not practice with the team or play in the season’s remaining six games. She also complained that she was not invited to attend the post-season awards banquet and that Coach Rowles declined to give her a participation award because “she did not finish the season.”

As a result, Wildman sued the school principal, school athletic director, varsity girls' basketball coach, and school district, alleging that the First Amendment prevented the school from disciplining her for distributing a letter which was a personal communication to other students containing her personal expression. 

THE COURT’S DECISION

The Court began its decision by noting “the right to express opinions on school premises is not absolute.” The Court also noted that Marshalltown had a handbook for student conduct in 1997–1998, as well as a Marshalltown Bobcat Basketball Handbook, drafted by Coach Rowles and distributed to Wildman and her teammates at the start of the season. Both handbooks indicated that disrespect and insubordination would result in disciplinary action at the coach’s discretion.

In finding in favor of the school district, the Court stated, “the school sanction only required an apology. The school did not interfere with Wildman’s regular education. A difference exists between being in the classroom, which was not affected here, and playing on an athletic team when the requirement is that the player only apologize to her teammates and her coach for circulating an insubordinate letter.” The Court also found, “the letter did suggest, at the least, that the team unite in defiance of the coach (where Wildman wrote that the coach “needs us next year and the year after and what if we aren't there for him?” and “[i]t is time to give him back some of the bull[----] that he has given us” and “[w]e now need to stand up for what we believe in” and “I think that we have to fight for our position.”

The Court concluded its opinion by noting, “Wildman's letter, containing the word “bull[----]” in relation to other language in it and motivated by her disappointment at not playing on the varsity team, constitutes insubordinate speech toward her coaches. [W]here Wildman's speech called for an apology, no basis exists for a claim of a violation of free speech.”

Scott Swier
Founding Member, Attorney At Law