Court finds no free-association right to school friendships

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Relationships with school classmates cannot form the basis of a First Amendment free-association claim, a federal judge in Pennsylvania has ruled in a case involving school bullying.

The parents of an elementary school student known as A.B. in court papers contended that officials in the Montgomery Area School District violated their son’s constitutional rights by not adequately addressing bullying concerns and complaints they filed.

When A.B. was a second-grader at Elimsport Elementary, he allegedly was bullied by another student known as T.B. A.B.’s parents contended that T.B. called A.B. names, harassed him and punched him. A.B. claimed that when he complained to teachers about T.B.’s behavior, he was told to stop “tattletaling” and nothing was done. Other incidents occurred in different grades, including an instance in sixth grade when T.B. sent unsolicited text messages to A.B. The texting resulted in an in-school suspension for T.B.

A.B. and his parents filed a lawsuit in August 2010 against the school district, claiming the school violated A.B.’s constitutional rights by not effectively enforcing policies against bullying and cyberbullying. One of the constitutional claims involved the First Amendment. The plaintiffs contended that the school district’s failure to prevent bullying interfered with A.B.’s free-association rights to personal relationships with his classmates during his formative years.

The First Amendment protects two types of association — expressive and intimate. Expressive association refers to people gathering to engage in First Amendment protected activity, while intimate association refers to individuals entering into close personal relationships.

A.B.’s lawsuit contended that the school defendants violated A.B.’s intimate associational rights in his education. However, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III rejected this claim and granted summary judgment to the school district in his Aug. 10 opinion in A.B. v. Montgomery Area School District.

The judge wrote that “general social relationships among classmates are insufficiently intimate or expressive to trigger the First Amendment’s protections.” Jones reasoned that intimate-association claims usually involved “the sanctity of familial relationships,” not social relationships.

The judge also dismissed A.B.’s other constitutional claims of procedural and substantive due process.

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