Doggone: False Statements and Free Speech in Clemmons v. Guilford Technical Community College

by Pullman & Comley - School Law
Contact

Pullman & Comley - School Law

Sometimes, the motivation for chronicling a court decision is not because it is particularly groundbreaking; rather, it can simply be a confluence of peculiar facts and a reiteration of relevant legal principles.  That is certainly true with Clemmons v. Guilford Technical Community College, a case arising out of the United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, and one which serves as an example of the lengths to which some litigants will go to pursue a claim that is a dog, or at least about one.

The plaintiff in Clemmons was enrolled in a dental assistant program at Guilford Technical Community College in Jamesville, North Carolina [“GTCC”], when, on September 15, 2015, her dog was struck by a car and killed while Clemmons was walking it.  Although understandably distraught by this incident, Clemmons inexplicably sent the following text message to one of her professors:  “I won’t be in class today. My sister died in a car accident this morning” (emphasis added).  When her professor contacted her later that day, Clemmons thanked her, responding:  “It is not easy. Life is different now at home.”  Her classmates banded together and raised close to $200 in honor of Clemmons’ dead “sister.”

Clemmons subsequently informed various GTCC administrators and staff members that she was in the process of making funeral arrangements for her ten-year-old sister, that there was going to be a memorial service for her sister, and that she would be taking a few days off for “mental mollification.”  Because the service would be shortly thereafter, Clemmons explained that she would be wearing her black dress to class.  She also told another member of the Department that she had two sisters, Madison and Penelope, and that Penelope was the sister who died.  There is no mention as to whether Madison was also a dog or whether she was actually a sister.

Because Clemmons was reaching the maximum number of allowed absences without incurring an academic penalty, GTCC repeatedly requested a copy of her “sister’s” obituary.  Clemmons agreed to produce it — which would have made for interesting reading – but GTCC’s faculty then discovered through Facebook that Penelope was actually Clemmons’ dog.  Consequently, the dental assistant program’s director filed a formal complaint against Clemmons under GTCC’s Student Conduct Policy for having provided false information to GTCC, which obviously did not deter her, as during the hearing she falsely claimed that a service had been held for her dog at a local church.  Clemmons was suspended for the remainder of the school year and was required to take an ethics course prior to re-enrolling.  Having been suspended, she was unable to complete her coursework and received failing grades.

While one might have expected a chastened Clemmons to quietly slink away, she instead promptly filed suit against GTCC and Quentin Johnson, its Vice-President of Student Support Services, alleging the deprivation of her Fourteenth Amendment procedural and substantive due process rights, a violation of her First Amendment free speech rights, and certain state constitutional and statutory claims.  In a decision that was surprising only for its length and detail, the court granted the defendants’ summary judgment motions on all of the federal claims, and declined to exercise jurisdiction over the remaining state law allegations.

Of note was the court’s discussion of Clemmons’ First Amendment claim.  She asserted that GTCC could not regulate her speech as it was an “expression of grief” and did not affect the rights of other students.  Johnson argued that Clemmons’ speech was not protected because it was false.  The court concurred, noting that Johnson was not “regulating” the substance or viewpoint of Clemmons’ speech, nor did he ever prohibit it; rather, Clemmons was disciplined “for her repeated false statements.”  The court held that institutions of higher learning have a legitimate justification “for enforcing standards of honesty involving student behavior, particularly as it relates to interactions with faculty about school-related topics.”  The court added that demanding student honesty was especially reasonable in this case given faculty concerns about allowing a student who exhibited such dishonesty to practice in a clinical setting.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

Aside from the egregious nature and extent of the plaintiff’s deceit, and her apparent belief that she had done nothing wrong, there is perhaps little in Clemmons that would elicit a “Shazam” from that other, albeit fictional, denizen of North Carolina, Gomer Pyle.  Nonetheless, Clemmons is a helpful reminder that there are limitations on student speech that are not present elsewhere, such as in the workplace.  In reaching its holding, the Clemmons court quoted prior United States Supreme Court case law, specifically that schools “need not tolerate student speech that is inconsistent with its ‘basic educational mission.'”  That inconsistency includes false claims, whether they are oral or written.  Thus, while public schools, colleges and universities that establish a public forum cannot impose viewpoint-based restrictions on student speech, they need not permit – and can issue sanctions against – student dishonesty.

To read the full opinion, please click here.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Pullman & Comley - School Law | Attorney Advertising

Written by:

Pullman & Comley - School Law
Contact
more
less

Pullman & Comley - School Law on:

Readers' Choice 2017
Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
Sign up using*

Already signed up? Log in here

*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Custom Email Digest
Privacy Policy (Updated: October 8, 2015):
hide

JD Supra provides users with access to its legal industry publishing services (the "Service") through its website (the "Website") as well as through other sources. Our policies with regard to data collection and use of personal information of users of the Service, regardless of the manner in which users access the Service, and visitors to the Website are set forth in this statement ("Policy"). By using the Service, you signify your acceptance of this Policy.

Information Collection and Use by JD Supra

JD Supra collects users' names, companies, titles, e-mail address and industry. JD Supra also tracks the pages that users visit, logs IP addresses and aggregates non-personally identifiable user data and browser type. This data is gathered using cookies and other technologies.

The information and data collected is used to authenticate users and to send notifications relating to the Service, including email alerts to which users have subscribed; to manage the Service and Website, to improve the Service and to customize the user's experience. This information is also provided to the authors of the content to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

JD Supra does not sell, rent or otherwise provide your details to third parties, other than to the authors of the content on JD Supra.

If you prefer not to enable cookies, you may change your browser settings to disable cookies; however, please note that rejecting cookies while visiting the Website may result in certain parts of the Website not operating correctly or as efficiently as if cookies were allowed.

Email Choice/Opt-out

Users who opt in to receive emails may choose to no longer receive e-mail updates and newsletters by selecting the "opt-out of future email" option in the email they receive from JD Supra or in their JD Supra account management screen.

Security

JD Supra takes reasonable precautions to insure that user information is kept private. We restrict access to user information to those individuals who reasonably need access to perform their job functions, such as our third party email service, customer service personnel and technical staff. However, please note that no method of transmitting or storing data is completely secure and we cannot guarantee the security of user information. Unauthorized entry or use, hardware or software failure, and other factors may compromise the security of user information at any time.

If you have reason to believe that your interaction with us is no longer secure, you must immediately notify us of the problem by contacting us at info@jdsupra.com. In the unlikely event that we believe that the security of your user information in our possession or control may have been compromised, we may seek to notify you of that development and, if so, will endeavor to do so as promptly as practicable under the circumstances.

Sharing and Disclosure of Information JD Supra Collects

Except as otherwise described in this privacy statement, JD Supra will not disclose personal information to any third party unless we believe that disclosure is necessary to: (1) comply with applicable laws; (2) respond to governmental inquiries or requests; (3) comply with valid legal process; (4) protect the rights, privacy, safety or property of JD Supra, users of the Service, Website visitors or the public; (5) permit us to pursue available remedies or limit the damages that we may sustain; and (6) enforce our Terms & Conditions of Use.

In the event there is a change in the corporate structure of JD Supra such as, but not limited to, merger, consolidation, sale, liquidation or transfer of substantial assets, JD Supra may, in its sole discretion, transfer, sell or assign information collected on and through the Service to one or more affiliated or unaffiliated third parties.

Links to Other Websites

This Website and the Service may contain links to other websites. The operator of such other websites may collect information about you, including through cookies or other technologies. If you are using the Service through the Website and link to another site, you will leave the Website and this Policy will not apply to your use of and activity on those other sites. We encourage you to read the legal notices posted on those sites, including their privacy policies. We shall have no responsibility or liability for your visitation to, and the data collection and use practices of, such other sites. This Policy applies solely to the information collected in connection with your use of this Website and does not apply to any practices conducted offline or in connection with any other websites.

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our privacy policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use the Service or Website following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes. If you do not agree with the terms of this Policy, as it may be amended from time to time, in whole or part, please do not continue using the Service or the Website.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this privacy statement, the practices of this site, your dealings with this Web site, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at: info@jdsupra.com.

- hide
*With LinkedIn, you don't need to create a separate login to manage your free JD Supra account, and we can make suggestions based on your needs and interests. We will not post anything on LinkedIn in your name. Or, sign up using your email address.