A former Ohio high school basketball player is suing his high school, the athletic director, the school’s principal, and his former basketball coach, alleging they violated his First Amendment right of free speech and his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process, resulting in a “loss of liberty” when he was cut from the team.
The suit was originally filed in Medina County Common Pleas Court [read the complaint here] by Chase Johanson, who graduated from the school in 2013 and is currently on the track team at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. The case was transferred to the U.S. District Court Aug. 27 at the request of the defendants, who said the lawsuit belongs in federal court because the claims involve constitutional issues.
Johanson, who says in an online profile that he was a 6′ 7″ power forward for Medina High School and “my father played basketball at the University of Tennessee,” claims the problems at the school began in December of 2010 during his sophomore year when there was a conflict between a school-sponsored musical performance (in which Johanson participated) and a basketball game. “Following the code of conduct for the school, when such a conflict arises, there was an agreement that he could participate in the musical performance with no clarification of penalty,” the complaint explains.
But Johanson claims that he was forced to sit on the bench for half of the next basketball game as a result of his choosing to attend the musical performance, which ultimately led to two years of conflicts and meetings between Johanson, his mother, the athletic staff, and school administrators. Coaches claim that Johanson’s lackluster athletic performance and bad attitude didn’t warrant being rewarded with much playing time, while Johanson and his mother say that he was being unfairly targeted and punished by a coach who didn’t like him.
Count I of the lawsuit claims Johanson’s First Amendment rights were violated when he was punished for sending tweets critical of his team and the coaching staff.
After one game and away from school, the suit alleges, “Plaintiff sent a private tweet on the Twitter Social Media System which stated ‘Am I that bad that I can’t even play on a losing team??'” He says the next day he was benched during a cancer benefit game even though coaches knew the game was important to him because his mother was a cancer survivor.
Johanson claims in the suit that the coaches from another high school told him that he would start every game if he were on their team, after which he tweeted, “At this point the trainer has been on the floor more than I have.” He then sent a subsequent tweet stating, “At least the Elyria and Brunswick coaches would take me to play basketball.”
Johanson was later kicked off of the team, he says, as a result of the tweets, which were made after school hours and off school property.
According to the complaint,
Plaintiff and his parents’ actions in speaking with school officials, writing to school officials, complaining about the treatment of Plaintiff, and Plaintiff’s private communications by Twitter are all activity protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution as made effective as to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Plaintiff’s ill treatment and ultimately his removal from the Medina High School Basketball Team in his senior year was a direct retaliation against him for the Constitutionally protected activity engaged in by both he and his parents. As a direct and proximate result of this retaliation, Plaintiff suffered humiliation and embarrassment, a loss of liberty, and lost opportunities for both personal enrichment and potential scholarships.
He also alleges in Counts II and III that because the Student Parent Handbook of the Medina City School District has no policy prohibiting private social media communications, the punishment violated his right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. The complaint claims the Plaintiff “was never given notice of the charges against him, never given an opportunity to present a defense, call witnesses on his behalf, or present the matter to an impartial hearing officer, or, for that matter any hearing officer and was never presented with a written report of the conduct of which he was accused of.”
While many courts have recognized that extracurricular activities are an important part of a well-rounded education, they have continued to hold that participation in such activities is not constitutionally protected. In Lowery v. Euverard, four student athletes were kicked off the football team for refusing to apologize for circulating a petition critical of the coach. The Sixth Circuit court ruled that they were neither deprived of their right to an education nor their First Amendment rights. The court noted that “plaintiffs’ regular education has not been impeded, and, significantly, they are free to continue their campaign to have Euverard fired. What they are not free to do is continue to play football for him while actively working to undermine his authority. Confusing the right to express one’s opinion with the right to participate in a voluntary government program on one’s own terms would lead to an unworkable legal regime.”
Johanson is asking for $75,000 in damages, $25,000 for each count. He also wants the court to order the school to develop and publish a policy on private social media communications by students “that is consistent with the Constitution of the United States” and also “for such other relief as the Court deems proper.”