Legal Coalition Raises Concern Over Massive Financial Penalties Imposed on Public School Employees Protecting First Amendment Rights

May 19, 2023 by AFP

Arlington, VA — Americans for Prosperity Foundation (AFPF), filing with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), the Defense of Freedom Institute for Policy Studies, Reason Foundation, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri (ACLU-Missouri), submitted an amicus brief in the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, urging the court to reverse the district court’s award of more than $300,000 in attorney’s fees to the defendant school district in Henderson v. School District Of Springfield R-12. 

The plaintiffs – two local, public school staff members – filed suit against the Springfield School District alleging violations of the First Amendment and Unconstitutional Conditions Doctrine. The lower court disagreed and entered judgment in favor of the school district. In an unusual step, the court granted the government’s full $300,000-plus request for attorney’s fees, opining that Plaintiffs’ First Amendment claims wasted the court’s time. In entering this massive award, the court turned the civil rights fee-shifting statute on its head. Amici signers argue: 

Uncritically awarding government officials hundreds of thousands of dollars defeats the purpose of our fundamental civil rights statutes, prevents the vindication of vital constitutional protections, and stagnates the law. 

This issue affects civil rights litigation across the board but creates particularly onerous risks for two types of civil rights plaintiffs: students and their parents. The long and storied history of First Amendment challenges in public schools, which have placed critical bricks in the wall of First Amendment protection, demonstrates the importance of vindicating the civil rights claims brought by litigants who can least afford to risk being burdened with the government’s legal fees.  

As AFPF Senior Policy Counsel Cindy Crawford explains: 

Students have been responsible for many of the keystone cases in our First Amendment jurisprudence, and that litigation has benefited us all — protecting matters of conscience from government compulsion to espouse the approved viewpoint.  

This case is about public school employees, but the principle remains the same: Vindication of First Amendment freedoms should not require plaintiffs to bet the farm to get their day in court. Bob Eitel, DFI’s President and Co-founder, sums it up as follows:  

The Defense of Freedom Institute is proud to stand with public school employees Brooke Henderson and Jennifer Lumley as they continue their fight for justice against Springfield Public Schools. We are confident that the court of appeals will see the district court judgment for what it is: a terribly flawed decision without legal support that will do nothing but chill legitimate, good faith claims for violations of civil rights. 

That is why maintaining fee-shifting provisions is so important to the legal advocacy groups, like amici that support the ability of individuals to vindicate their rights. ADF Legal Counsel Mathew Hoffmann comments: 

Alliance Defending Freedom, as well as the diverse coalition of other legal advocacy groups we joined in filing this friend-of-the-court brief, regularly help or advocate for the ability of average American citizens to challenge government officials who have infringed on their constitutionally protected rights. When government officials violate someone’s First Amendment freedoms, they should be held accountable for their actions and pay the necessary attorney’s fees. We urge the court to protect every American’s right to pursue legal action to vindicate their constitutionally protected freedoms. 

Abby Smith, Amicus Attorney at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression highlighted the importance of the case to FIRE’s clients.  

At FIRE, we are humbled by the bravery of our clients and their willingness to stand up for free expression in the public square. If the district court’s fees ruling in this case is not reversed, civil rights plaintiffs could wind up owing hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to the government, all for daring to fight back against government constitutional violations. FIRE urges the Eighth Circuit to overturn the district court’s fees ruling and reaffirm that fees are available to Section 1983 defendants only in the most plainly frivolous, bad faith cases. 

Regarding the broad importance of protecting civil rights litigants, Gillian Ruddy Wilcox, Deputy Director for Litigation, ACLU of Missouri, issued the following statement:   

While the organizations filing this amicus brief may disagree on the meaning of the constitution and even on the merits of the suit against Springfield Public Schools, we agree that access to the courts is necessary to challenge the government when it restricts the rights of the people it was intended to serve. The financial penalty imposed by the decision on appeal will close the courthouse door to anyone pushing to expand individual liberty. 

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