First Amendment Clearly Protects Student Encouraging Classmates to Negatively Evaluate Professor

Starting at Thompson v. RaglandToday, the Tenth Circuit ruled in favor of Judge Harris Hartz. Chief Judge Timothy Tymkovich joined Judge Scott Matheson.

Rowan Thompson was a MSU student who had a disagreement with her professor in chemistry. Thompson eventually dropped the class. But when Thompson emailed her former classmates to express her displeasure with the professor and to suggest that her classmates leave “honest” end-of-term evaluations, Thomas Ragland, MSU’s Associate Director for Student Conduct, allegedly prohibited Thompson from further contacting the professor or even discussing the professor with any students taking any of the professor’s classes….

Thompson suffers from an eye condition which makes her highly sensitive to light. She must sit in the third row of a classroom so she can see the writing on the whiteboard. MSU’s Dr. Megan Lazorski enrolled Thompson in Chemistry class. Thompson was late arriving to class on Tuesday, February 4. She noticed that none of the seats in her first three rows was occupied so she took a seat in front row. Thompson refused to accept Dr. Lazorski’s suggestion and interrupted her lecture to tell Thompson where she wanted to be seated. Thompson had told Dr. Lazorski of her eye condition. However, she insisted that Thompson take a seat. She also asked that students move from the front row to allow Thompson to sit.

Thompson returned to class one week later. Thompson was unable to find a place for a desk so he sat down on the ground in the third row. Thompson was instructed by Dr. Lazorski to find a place to sit. Thompson claimed she would rather sit in front of Dr. Lazorski because of her condition. Dr. Lazorski said that there were only two options: sit at a desk, or get out of the class. Thompson left class.

Thompson ended up dropping Dr. Lazorski’s course because of the seat dispute and the unlikely possibility of it being settled. Thompson was informed by MSU that the class had been removed and that she received a full refund for her tuition. Thompson still was unhappy with Dr. Lazorski’s treatment of her. In a letter, Thompson complained to Dr. Lazorski about her treatment. A mediation was requested by Thompson to settle her grievance with Dr. Lazorski. This took place March 18. Thompson was also encouraged to complete evaluation forms and to rate Dr. Lazorski on the mediation.

Thompson discovered that Dr. Lazorski had not given her a performance review and she would have to submit one. The following email was sent to Thompson’s former classmates.

Rowan, my name is Rowan. Some of you might know me from the class where I was the girl in the goth outfit who sat down on the ground. If you don’t remember, I was late for class several times. Then again, it wasn’t uncommon for me to sit on the ground. The professor was so annoyed by my behavior that he asked me to drop the class. After mediation between the dean in chemistry and me, I decided to quit the class several weeks later to end any further tensions over the sitting on the ground.

Many people have told me how miserable they are having with this class. Some parts are absurd and others are just plain ridiculous. It shouldn’t be necessary to endure a course, even if it is mandatory. This isn’t college. College should make you excited about your future and help you find the subject matter that interests, not just abandon class to learn nothing. Evaluations can be used to help you vent your frustrations and complaints. You can fill them online. Every problem you’ve ever had? The university and faculty will listen to you. Dropped students, like myself, won’t fill out evaluations. Our voices can only be heard by the deans. However, many people are scared to talk face-to-face.

You can take a moment to look over the chemistry course and tell the professor what you are thinking. You can do this for your own benefit, but also for the students and others who may have dropped the class because they felt worthless or stupid.

You’ll get through this semester, so don’t panic! ? ?


According to the complaint, the email “did not involve any substantial interference or material disturbance in the work of MSU” as well as “did not impinge upon the rights of other students.”

Thompson received from Ragland a letter on April 25 informing her of reports received by the Dean of Students Office. [Thompson]might have violated student code of conduct”; these reports were about “difference between [Thompson]Thompson and Dr. Lazorski”, and specifically that Thompson’s email to former students “may have violated” the Student Code of Conduct; that Thompson needed to meet Ragland; that Thompson was placed under a “No Contact Order” that prohibited her from communicating directly with Dr. Lazorski. Ragland specifically warned that “Further” due to Thompson’s persistent communication about Dr. Lazorski (sic), she could not discuss it with anyone in the CHE 1800 course, or with Dr. Lazorski’s class, because this would violate the No Contact Directive (sic). …

Thompson sued, and the defendants moved to dismiss on qualified immunity grounds; but the court held that what the complaint alleged was a violation of the student’s clearly established First Amendment rights, the court held—of course, if the facts are as alleged, which is the assumption at this stage of the litigation. In addition to citing the First Amendment K-12 case, the court also noted two cases involving college students that offered even greater protection.

Healy v. James (1972), … [the court]”The view that First Amendment protections on colleges campuses should not be as strong as in the wider community because they are required to maintain order” was rejected by the Court. … But the Court cautioned that “First Amendment rights must always be applied in light of the special characteristics of the environment in the particular case.” And the Court maintained that although students in higher education enjoy the protection of the First Amendment, a university “may expect that its students adhere to generally accepted standards of conduct” that govern “the time, the place, and the manner” of student speech….

In the next year Papish v. Board of Curators of University of Missouri(1973). (Per curiam). The Court looked into the expelling of a graduate student of a public university because she distributed an underground paper that had a vulgar headline, and a political cartoon of policemen abusing the Statue of Liberty. The university found out that the student had broken university regulations regarding conduct. These guidelines required students to adhere “to generally accepted standards of behavior” and prohibited “indecent conduct, speech or conduct.” The Court found no evidence that “any disruption to campus order or interference in the rights of other students” was the case and ruled that the student had been expelled. Continue reading of the newspaper rather than the time, place, or manner of its distribution,” thereby violating the student’s First Amendment rights….

Think about it [all these]The precedents show that Thompson’s complaint properly states the violation of the First Amendment. This case seems to be a simple one, at least for the moment. Thompson spoke in a restricted manner. This restriction is not justified.

Ragland did not appeal Thompson’s communication being vulgar as it was in Bethel School Dist. No. 403 v. Fraser (1986) [a high school student case]You violate or attempt to violate any restrictions concerning the time, place or way of speaking. See also: Healy. Thompson hasn’t suggested Thompson was disciplined because he violated school rules regarding expressive activities. See also:  Hazelwood School Dist. v. Kuhlmeier (1988) Or for promoting illegal conduct See also: Morse v. Frederick (2007) [two other high school student cases]….

Ragland’s briefs justify the restrictions because Thompson created disruption. In part, he cites the disruption Thompson experienced while sitting on the floor in the classes. These two classes took place in February 2019. Thompson received Ragland’s email in the latter part of April. Thompson had sent an email to students during the interim period (sometime between March 18 and 19). An honest factfinder would be able to determine that Thompson was disciplined for sending her email and not because of two incidents in class that were minorly disruptive.

Thompson sent an email to students indicating that he was causing disruption. There is no evidence that the email caused any disruption. The complaint claims there was no disruption in the work of MSU and Ragland did not mention it. Neither could it have been reasonably expected that disruption would occur. Thompson sent an email that was respectful and non-inflammatory. She expressed her disappointment with the performance of a professor and encouraged her classmates to write honest reviews.

Ragland’s appellate brief is extraordinary. Thompson claims Thompson’s efforts to get other students to write negative reviews would cause Dr. Lazorski to lose her career, her relationships with her students and his ability to be a good friend to them all. [MSU’s]”Efforts in hiring faculty to lead the class.” … If we were to accept that rationale, there would be no First Amendment protection for criticism of government employees. Furthermore, faculty member critiques are widely accepted as an effective mechanism to improve college teaching. The complaint claims that Thompson was encouraged by the mediator to write an evaluation for her professor. It was only after she learned that her departure from the class precluded her from submitting her own evaluation that she sent the email encouraging others to do so….

[E]Even though Thompson requested that Dr. Lazorski’s classmates evaluate her class on campus, Ragland could have reprimanded Thompson for her conduct and banned her speech. If anything, the fact that Thompson’s speech occurred off campus and online—reducing the speech-to-university nexus and thus MSU’s power to regulate the speech—makes the alleged First Amendment violation ClearerNot less.

However, we note that Ragland still hasn’t had the opportunity to provide evidence supporting his actions. Ragland did not file an answer because the District Court disposed the case on Rule 12(b(6) motion. Our present holding is limited. Ragland may be entitled to qualified immunity at the summary-judgment stage, when a clearer picture of what happened will have emerged….