Monday, February 19, 2024

The Emerging First Amendment Right to Mistreat Students

Andrew Koppelman

    Under the long-settled tradition of religious liberty, religious people may not demand a right to invade and direct the public sphere, to alter the delivery of state functions in order to force their views upon nonadherents.  Yet in two prominent cases, Kennedy v. Bremerton in the Supreme Court and Meriwether v. Hartop in the Sixth Circuit, courts have held that publicly employed teachers may exercise their First Amendment rights of free speech and religion even when doing so mistreats students.

In both cases, despite a long-established rule of deference to public employers’ need to control their own operations – and despite mighty efforts to accommodate difficult employees - public schools lost the capacity to protect students from misbehaving teachers.  In each, the school proposed a solution that would give appropriate weight to each side’s most urgent interests.  Not good enough, the court decreed: the religious side must be granted an absolute and uncompromising victory.  It was oblivious to the countervailing interest.  The language of privacy and autonomy was deployed to enable the religious to wield state authority and harm their students.

These are only two cases.  But they come from high federal courts, one from the Supreme Court, and their similarity of approach, and resemblance to other recent treatments of religious liberty by the Court, is a reasonable basis for alarm.

I develop this argument in an article, “The Emerging First Amendment Right to Mistreat Students,” newly published in the Case Western Law Review.

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