Doninger v. Niehoff

NOTE: The information and commentary contained in this database entry are based on court filings and other informational sources that may contain unproven allegations made by the parties. The truthfulness and accuracy of such information is likely to be in dispute. Information contained in this entry is current as of the last event mentioned in the "Description" section below; additional proceedings might have taken place in this matter since this event.

Summary

Threat Type: 

Disciplinary Action

Date: 

07/16/2007

Status: 

Concluded

Location: 

Connecticut

Disposition: 

Dismissed (total)

Verdict or Settlement Amount: 

N/A
Administrators barred a Connecticut high school student from running in a student election after the student critized admininstrators online for their handling of a student festival. In the spring of 2007, Jamfest, a yearly music festival at a Connecticut high school, experienced... read full description
Parties

Party Issuing Legal Threat: 

Karissa Niehoff; Paula Schwartz

Party Receiving Legal Threat: 

Avery Doninger; Lauren Doninger, on behalf of minor Avery Doninger

Type of Party: 

Individual
School

Type of Party: 

Individual

Location of Party: 

  • Connecticut

Location of Party: 

  • Connecticut

Legal Counsel: 

Jon L. Schoenhorn
Description

Administrators barred a Connecticut high school student from running in a student election after the student critized admininstrators online for their handling of a student festival. In the spring of 2007, Jamfest, a yearly music festival at a Connecticut high school, experienced a series of planning setbacks that threatened to postpone or cancel the event. When Avery Doninger – a junior and incumbent class secretary – was unable to meet with the school's principal, Karissa Niehoff, to talk about the event she and three other students sent a mass e-mail asking members of the community to speak to administrators about putting the event back on schedule. Doninger and Niehoff later had a discussion in the hallway, during which she says Niehoff informed her that the event had been cancelled.

That night, Doninger wrote a Livejournal blog post criticizing the school officials' handling of the issue. In the post, she called the school officials “douchebags” and asked her fellow students and their parents to complain to school superintendent Schwartz in order “to piss [Schwartz] off more” than the mass e-mail had.

In response to her blog post, the school barred Doninger from running for reelection as Class Secretary for her senior year. At the class election, school officials prevented a group of students from wearing “Team Avery” t-shirts. According to school principal Niehoff, the t-shirt ban was intended to prevent electioneering by candidates and supporters who could afford such merchandise.

Avery's mother, Lauren Doninger, attempted to convince school officials to consider alternative forms of punishment. She also tried to establish whether or not the incident would appear in Avery's school record. When a resolution could not be reached on these issues, the Doningers filed suit in Connecticut state court against Niehoff and Schwartz. The defendants removed the case to the federal court in Connecticut.

The Doningers' complaint for injunctive relief alleged violations of Connecticut free speech laws, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and violations of Avery's constitutional rights to free speech, due process, and equal protection under the Civil Rights Act (Title 42 U.S.C. § 1983, 1988). The complaint sought to enjoin the defendants on seven different counts. All told, the complaint would prevent defendants from installing anyone as Class Secretary until an election was held with Avery on the ballot; from maintaining negative remarks related to this incident in Avery's school record; from punishing students for wearing t-shirts bearing slogans related to the incident; from preventing Avery from addressing her class in assemblies; and from punishing or intimidating Avery, her mother, or any students who subsequently might vote for Avery in the new election.

The district court found that Avery met the initial “irreparable harm” standard required for a preliminary injunction through her showing that her speech may have been chilled because she voluntarily chose not to wear a "Team Avery" t-shirt at school, limited her e-mail and blog communications to prevent a similar incident, and restricted her Livejournal account to “private.”

However, the court denied the Doningers' motion, finding that she had not demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits as to her constitutional claims. In addressing the Doningers' claims, the court divided its discussion into First Amendment and Equal Protection issues.

The court determined that Avery's blog post constituted on-campus speech for First Amendment purposes, regardless of the fact that she wrote it off campus, because "the blog was related to school issues, and it was reasonably foreseeable that other LMHS students would view the blog and that school administrators would become aware of it." Slip op. at 28. The court then noted that school administrators have the right, in certain situations, to restrict on-campus speech to promote school-related goals. The court also ruled that Avery does not have a First Amendment right to run for voluntary office.

Considering these two concepts together, the court determined that the defendants may have had the right to prevent Avery from running for office as punishment for her statements in order to promote civility in school functions, thus making an injunction inappropriate. The court had more serious misgivings about the denial of the right to wear “Team Avery” t-shirts, which it related to the black armbands in the famous Tinker school speech case. However, it decided to reserve that issue until the parties have had a chance to develop the record as the case goes forward.

The court denied the injunction as to the Doningers' Equal Protection claims because Avery's blog post made her situation unique compared to the other students involved.

Update:

5/29/2008 - The U.S. Court of the Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the district court's decision using similar reasoning.

11/12/2008 - The district court heard argument on the defense's motion for summary judgment.

1/15/2009 - The district court grants the defendants' motion for summary judgment in part and denies the plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment.

1/23/2009 - District court trial set to begin June 4, 2009.

3/19/2009 - District court denies both the plaintiff's and the defendants' motions to reconsider the rulings on their summary judgment motions.

4/7/2009 - Defendants appeal the district court's ruling on its summary judgment motion to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

4/16/2009 - Plaintiff appeals the district court's ruling on its summary judgment motion to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

5/14/2009 - The district court grants the plaintiff's motion requesting that the district court certify as final judgment its ruling on the defendants' motion for summary judgment. Defendants file motion for stay of trial to allow time for their appeal to the Second Circuit.

4/25/2011 - The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit decides in favor of the principal and superintendent on the issue of qualified immunity, affirming those portions of the district court's summary judgment ruling that were in favor of the principal and superintendent and reversing the remainder.

07/21/2011 - Avery filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari to the Supreme Court of the United States.

10/31/2011 - The Supreme Court denied Avery's Petition for Certiorari.

 

Details

Content Type: 

  • Text

Publication Medium: 

Blog

Subject Area: 

  • Blogs
  • Student Speech
Court Information & Documents

Jurisdiction: 

  • Connecticut

Source of Law: 

  • United States
  • Connecticut

Court Name: 

Connecticut Superior Court, New Britain; U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut; U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit

Court Type: 

Federal
State

Case Number: 

3:07CV1129(MRK); 07-3885-cv (2nd Circuit)

Relevant Documents: 

CMLP Information (Private)

CMLP Notes: 

6/17/09 -CMF updated

2/7/2011 - fixed inverted lawyer-party pairings (AAB)

Comments