Loudoun Now

Appeals Court Says Parents Can Pursue First Amendment Challenge to LCPS

April 17, 2023

(Loudoun Now)—The United States Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled April 14 that several Loudoun County parents can pursue a First Amendment lawsuit against Loudoun County Public Schools’ bias reporting system.

The decision reverses the dismissal of a lawsuit by District Court Judge Anthony John Trenga wherein the parents sued the School Board claiming their students’ First Amendment rights were infringed upon.

In 2020, the school division created a Student Equity Ambassador program as part of its action plan to combat systemic racism after the board in 2019 hired an outside consultant to assess the campus climate in the division. A report created by Equity Collaborative found limited opportunities for “Black/African-American and Muslim students to convene in a network of social and cultural support,” according to the ruling. It was recommended the division establish “student affinity groups” to support students of color.

Under the Student Equity Ambassador Program, the division chose up to three students from each middle and high school to be ambassadors. The ambassadors participated in division wide meetings where students talked about race and equity. The program also documented incidents of perceived bias through an anonymous electronic form and then those incidents were discussed at Share, Speak-up, Speak-out meetings. Incidents were also investigated by administrators, according to the ruling.

Initially, the program was limited to students of color, but the division changed that after it was criticized.

The division stated ambassadors would be responsible for amplifying the voices of students of color “by engaging in discussions about student stories/experiences regarding issues of racism, injustice and inequity,” according to the ruling. The division also suggested leaders be honest, sympathetic and “have a passion for social justice.”

The parents declared Equal Protection and First Amendment claims arguing their children were not eligible to be an ambassador because of their race and viewpoint and alleged the reporting system “chilled their children from exercising their free speech rights.”

Trenga dismissed the parents’ case, ruling they failed to prove their children were denied access to being an ambassador and said the parents lacked legal standing to bring First Amendment claims about the new bias reporting system.

The parents appealed and Judges A. Marvin Quattlebaum Jr., Paul V. Niemeyer and G. Steven Agee in a decision on April 14 overturned Trenga’s ruling on the bias reporting system.

Quattlebaum, who wrote the opinion with agreement from Niemeyer and Agee, found the parents have standing to bring a lawsuit alleging that the bias reporting system violated their first and fourteenth amendments “by chilling their children’s speech through content-based restrictions and through viewpoint discrimination.”

Quattlebaum, citing a Supreme Court case, wrote the high court recognized the “danger of chilling free speech” and when there is a risk of punishment involved a person will refrain from speaking out on a subject.

In the ruling, Quattlebaum wrote the parents alleged the ambassadors defined microaggressions as “every day, subtle, intentional—and often unintentional—interactions or behaviors that communicate some sort of bias toward historically marginalized groups.” He wrote they cited “denials of racial reality and a framework of ‘colorblindness’ that sees people as individuals rather than members of a race” as examples of microaggressions. He wrote the parents alleged their children’s speech had been chilled because they “believe that everyone is equal and that we should strive for a color-blind society.” He wrote the students also wanted to speak out on critical race theory, gender identity and “other controversial political issues with the LCPS community,” but their views were not shared with others. He stated parents believed if their children spoke up on the issues they would be reported and investigated for ‘bias incidents,’ which could negatively impact their student’s “standing within the school community and ruin their college or career prospects.”

He ruled those allegations would be “sufficient to show that the bias reporting system caused the parents’ children to experience a non-speculative and objectively reasonable chilling effect on their speech” and ordered the district court to consider the parents’ First Amendment claims.

The lawsuit will now be heard in federal district Court.

The parents are represented by the Liberty Justice Center, a conservative litigation group.