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A.M., A Minor, By Her Parent and Next Friend, Joanne Mckay v. Taconic Hills Central School District

January 23, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gary L. Sharpe Chief Judge


I. Introduction

Plaintiff A.M., a minor, by her parent and next friend, Joanne McKay, commenced this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against defendant Taconic Hills Central School District ("Taconic"), alleging violations of her free speech rights under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 8 of the New York State Constitution. (See Compl., Dkt. No. 1.) Pending are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. (Dkt. Nos. 36, 37.) For the reasons that follow, Taconic's motion is granted and A.M.'s motion is denied.

II. Background*fn1

During the 2008-2009 academic year, the student council elected A.M., an eighth grader in Taconic's middle school, to be a co-class president.*fn2 (Pl.'s Statement of Material Facts ("SMF") ¶¶ 1-2, Dkt. No. 36, Attach. 3.) By virtue of her position, A.M. was permitted to deliver a "brief message" at the annual Moving Up Ceremony ("Ceremony") scheduled for June 25, 2009 in the school auditorium. (Def.'s SMF ¶ 7; Pl.'s SMF ¶ 7.)

A few days before the Ceremony, A.M. asked her English teacher, Jamie Keenan, to look over her speech. (Def.'s SMF ¶ 8.) As Keenan read the speech, she came to the last sentence, which stated: "As we say our goodbyes and leave middle school behind, I say to you, may the LORD bless you and keep you; make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you; lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace." (Id. ¶ 9.) Unsure if this sentence was appropriate for the Ceremony, Keenan advised A.M. to have Principal Neil Howard review the speech. (Id. ¶ 12.) Keenan's concern was shared by Leanne Thorton, the faculty advisor for the student council, after she read A.M. and her co-class president's speeches on June 24, 2009. (Id. ¶¶ 13-15.)

Though previous principals heard the speeches for the first time during the rehearsal on the morning of the Ceremony, Principal Howard, who was in his first year at Taconic's middle school, opted to go over them in his office. (Pl.'s SMF ¶¶ 20, 22, 28.) After reviewing A.M.'s speech, Principal Howard concurred with Keenan and Thorton's assessment, stating the closing line "sounded too religious." (Pl.'s SMF ¶ 30; Dkt. No. 43 ¶ 11.) A.M. disagreed and presented Principal Howard with literature on student free speech rights from the "Christian Law Association's web site."

(Pl.'s SMF ¶ 29; Def.'s SMF ¶¶ 22-23.) However, this literature did not change his perspective, and Principal Howard advised A.M. that if she wished to deliver the speech, she would have to remove the last sentence. (Def.'s SMF ¶¶ 23-24.) In response, A.M. asked Principal Howard to contact her mother, which he did shortly thereafter. (Id. ¶ 25.) During his conversation with A.M.'s mother, Principal Howard reiterated his assessment and proposed solution. (Id. ¶ 26.) However, A.M.'s mother was unsatisfied and requested that he contact Superintendent Mark Sposato about the speech. (Id. ¶¶ 27-28.) Principal Howard obliged and later that day met with Superintendent Sposato to discuss the matter. (Id. ¶ 29.)

Following his review of the speech, Superintendent Sposato sought advice from Taconic's legal counsel. (Id. ¶ 30.) According to Taconic, its legal counsel agreed that the message sounded religious and moreover, that "delivering the religious message at a school sponsored event could violate the Establishment Clause."*fn3 (Id. ¶ 31.) Based on this advice, Superintendent Sposato contacted A.M.'s mother and informed her that A.M. would not be permitted to give the speech unless the last sentence was removed. (Id.) Although she protested what she believed was "a violation of A.M.'s constitutional free speech rights," A.M.'s mother agreed to allow A.M. to deliver the speech without the last sentence. (Id. ¶ 32.)

The Ceremony began at approximately 6 p.m. in the school's auditorium. (Pl.'s SMF ¶ 7.) While A.M. avers the Ceremony was run by the student council, she concedes that it was "generally organized and overseen" by Taconic's administrators. (See Dkt. No. 43 ¶ 39.) Nevertheless, it is undisputed that Taconic provided all of the following for the Ceremony: the requisite funds and insurance; the official announcements, which were sent on school letterhead; the event programs; and the "diplomas." (Pl.'s SMF ¶¶ 4, 10; Def.'s SMF ¶¶ 35, 38, 44.) In addition to music by the school band, the Ceremony was decorated with school "banners and signs with [Taconic's] name, logo and mascot," as well as orange and white balloons, Taconic's colors. (Def.'s SMF ¶¶ 41-42.) Finally, Taconic provided the podium and the microphone for the speeches. (Id. ¶ 45.)

Although the Ceremony was neither mandatory nor graded, it was attended by the students' families, "Board of Education members, teachers, staff, administrators, students and community members." (Pl.'s SMF ¶¶ 6, 8; Def.'s SMF ¶ 37.) The Ceremony's speakers included Principal Howard, Board of Education President Ronald Morales and Taconic's high school valedictorian. (Def.'s SMF ¶ 43.) After being introduced by Principal Howard, A.M. began her speech with "'I'd like to take this opportunity to thank our families and friends for joining us tonight for our moving up celebration.'" (Id. ¶ 50.) Despite disagreeing with Taconic's perception of the last sentence-which she described as a "blessing"-A.M. delivered the speech in accordance with Principal Howard's instructions. (Pl.'s SMF ¶ 35; Def.'s SMF ¶ 54.) Shortly thereafter, she commenced the instant suit.

In her Complaint, A.M. alleges that Taconic, Principal Howard and Superintendent Sposato violated her right to free speech as protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, and Article I, Section 8 of the New York Constitution. (See Compl. ¶¶ 23-33, Dkt. No. 1.) In a January 25, 2011 Memorandum-Decision and Order, this court dismissed A.M.'s claims against Principal Howard and Superintendent Sposato in their official capacities as duplicative, but otherwise denied Taconic's motion to dismiss. (See Dkt. Nos. 12, 22.)

III. Standard of Review

The standard of review under Fed. R. Civ. P. 56 is well established and will not be repeated here. For a full discussion of the standard, the court refers the parties to its decision in Wagner v. Swarts, No. ...

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