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Goldwater Urges Federal Court to Protect Dad’s Right to Speak to Daughter’s Coach

May 1, 2023

A Tennessee public high school banned a dad from attending his daughter’s softball games—all because he sent a text message to his daughter’s coach. But the government can’t punish someone just for speaking. That’s why that dad, Randall McElhaney, is suing the school for violating his First Amendment rights. The Goldwater Institute has filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the court to protect his parental rights in a case being heard today by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

The trouble began when the Upperman High School varsity softball coach adopted a new policy strictly forbidding parents from speaking to the coach about playing time. Additionally, all practices were “closed,” so parents were forbidden from attending.

That’s when Randall texted the coach about his daughter’s playing time. The message was respectful; it did not contain any name-calling, profanity, or even a hint that the parent would go over the coach’s head. But the coach still took issue with the text message and reported the breach of his policy to the principal. The principal, coach, and athletic director then had a meeting with Randall and suspended him from attending games for a week.

To be clear, the suspension was entirely based on the text message Randall sent to the coach. But there was no issue with him texting the coach—it was all about the content of that message.

Randall then sued the coach, and various school officials who upheld his suspension, in federal court, arguing that the suspension violated his First Amendment rights. Under the First Amendment, it is unconstitutional for government officials to retaliate against individuals for protected speech. But the district court didn’t even bother deciding whether the school violated his First Amendment rights by suspending him. Instead, the court held that even if the school violated his rights, it was not “clearly established” that the school could not suspend him for speaking to the coach about playing time. Thus, the coach and other school officials were entitled to “qualified immunity,” a policy doctrine made up by judges to protect government officials when the officials violate constitutional rights.

Goldwater’s amicus brief in support of Randall’s rights argues that by not determining whether the coach violated Randall’s constitutional rights, the district court failed to understand the right actually threatened. It’s not the right to talk to a high school softball coach about playing time. Rather, it is the right of a parent to speak to a public school employee about his daughter when that employee has consistent interactions with the student.

The Supreme Court has recognized that parents have a fundamental right and duty to control and direct the education and upbringing of their children. In fact, this is one of the oldest fundamental rights recognized by the Supreme Court. Yet the district court threw it aside with little more than a nod. If the district court realized this was the right at issue, then the court would have come to a very different conclusion about whether the coach violated Randall’s “clearly established” rights. That’s why Goldwater’s brief urges the Sixth Circuit to recognize the real right in question and provide protection for this fundamental liberty.

By suspending a father from attending his daughter’s games for a week, school officials violated the First Amendment by retaliating against Randall for protected speech. And they intruded on the right of a parent to direct and manage the care, custody, control, and education of his child—all rights the Supreme Court has called fundamental. Unfortunately, public schools across the country are similarly infringing on parents’ right to direct their children’s upbringing—but in courtrooms and capitol buildings nationwide, Goldwater is fighting back, and empowering parents to make decisions that best meet their kids’ needs.

Adam Shelton is a Staff Attorney at the Goldwater Institute. 



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