Federal Judge: Teacher Who Punished Student for Expressing Catholic Belief Against Homosexuality Violated Student’s First Amendment Rights

news_img_3584ANN ARBOR, MI – The Thomas More Law Center, a national public interest law firm based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, today announces a victory in their lawsuit against teacher Johnson McDowell of Howell High School in Howell, Michigan.  Federal District Judge Patrick J. Duggan of the Eastern District of Michigan issued his opinion yesterday.

The Court declared the teacher’s actions in punishing Daniel Glowacki for expressing his beliefs against homosexuality violated “Daniel’s First Amendment rights.”  In its findings of fact—the Court described how the teacher initiated a discussion about homosexuality.  The teacher wore a purple t-shirt and was promoting the homosexual agenda.  In response, the Plaintiff, 16 year-old Daniel Glowacki stated that homosexuality was against his Catholic beliefs.  The teacher, admittedly, became angry and threw Daniel out of class because he disagreed with Daniel’s beliefs.

The teacher in the lawsuit tried to blame Daniel and claimed he caused a disturbance in the teacher’s classroom.  The teacher’s claims were wholly unsupported by all of the other evidence in the case, including affidavits of students in the classroom and the teacher’s own earlier statements.  The teacher also tried to argue that Daniel’s religious statement was tantamount to “bullying.”  The Court dismissed that claim as well, holding that Daniel’s speech could not be silenced because the teacher did not like Daniel’s religious beliefs and viewpoint.

The Court’s opinion echoed the longstanding legal precedent that “students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”  Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 506 (1969).

The teacher argued that Daniel’s speech that his religion did not approve of homosexuality was a bullying statement.  However, Judge Duggan, citing several cases, disagreed (citations and quotations omitted).

While the Court certainly recognizes that schools are empowered to regulate speech to prevent students from invading the rights of other students, people do not have a legal right to prevent criticism of their beliefs or for that matter their way of life.  Relatedly, a listeners’ reaction to speech is not a content-neutral basis for regulation.  While a student or perhaps several students may have been upset or offended by Daniel’s remarks, Tinker straight-forwardly tells us that, in order for school officials to justify prohibition of a particular expression of opinion, they must be able to show that this action was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint. Simply put, the law does not establish a generalized hurt feelings defense to a high school’s violation of the First Amendment rights of its students.

Thomas More Law Center attorney, Erin Mersino was the lead counsel in the lawsuit.    It is expected that the teacher will appeal the decision.

Richard Thompson, President and Chief Counsel of the Thomas More Law Center, commenting on the favorable court decision, stated:

 “The purpose of our lawsuit was to protect students’ constitutional rights to free speech, defend religious liberty, and stop public schools from becoming indoctrination centers for the homosexual agenda.”

The Thomas More Law Center originally filed its federal lawsuit back on December 14, 2012 against the teacher, Johnson McDowell, and the Howell Public School District.  The claims against the School District were dismissed, and the Court held that the teacher alone was the responsible party.

The ACLU appeared in the case as amicus and supported Daniel’s position against the teacher.