On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania D.C. Civil Action No. 99-cv-00716 (Honorable A. Richard Caputo)
Before: Scirica and Greenberg, Circuit Judges,
and Fullam, District Judge*fn1
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Scirica, Circuit Judge
Argued/Submitted Pursuant to Third Circuit LAR 34.1(a) July 12, 2002
In this civil rights action, plaintiff, a third grade elementary school student, sued her teachers, school principal and school board for damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for allegedly preventing her from circulating a petition objecting to a planned third grade outing to the circus. The District Court granted summary judgment to defendants. We will affirm.
Plaintiff Amanda Walker-Serrano was a nine-year-old third grade student at the Lackawanna Trail Elementary School. Walker-Serrano's third grade class planned a voluntary field trip to the Shriner's circus in Wilkes-Barre on April 7, 1999. Walker-Serrano did not approve of the voluntary outing because she believed the circus was cruel to animals. As a result, she prepared a handwritten petition stating, "We 3rd grade kids don't want to go to the circus because they hurt animals. We want a better feild [sic] trip." On February 4, Walker-Serrano brought the petition to the playground at recess, where she persuaded more than thirty of her classmates to sign it.
The following day, February 5, Walker-Serrano was at her classroom desk during a class period of silent reading and independent work. A few students gathered at Walker-Serrano's desk. The classroom teacher, Elaine Mercanti, while breaking up the gathering, observed the petition on Walker-Serrano's desk and told her to put it away.
Later that day, Walker-Serrano again brought her petition to the schoolyard at recess. Defendant Pat Carpenter, one of the teachers supervising recess, observed a group of students around Walker-Serrano near a patch of ice on the playground. Carpenter then noticed that one of the female students was crying--she had fallen on the ice and was bleeding. Carpenter observed Walker-Serrano with a pencil or pen and the petition in the middle of the students and fearing that a student might be injured by the pencil or pen, instructed Walker-Serrano to put the objects away. Walker-Serrano contends that Carpenter told her either "put it away" or "you can't have that here."*fn2
Walker-Serrano was never punished for soliciting signatures for her petition or for possessing the petition. Furthermore, Walker-Serrano attended the Lackawanna School Board meeting on February 22, 1999 in order to express her opposition to the scheduled circus field trip.
On April 7, 1999, the third grade class attended the Shriner circus as planned. Walker-Serrano and her mother stood outside the circus and protested alleged cruelty to animals. Local media covered the protest.
The day prior, April 6, Walker-Serrano sought--and received--permission to pass out coloring books and stickers which dealt with cruelty to animals at the circus to her fellow students at school.
There was also some interplay between Walker-Serrano's parents--Lisa Walker and Michael Serrano--and school officials. When Walker-Serrano returned home on February 5, she informed her mother that she was not permitted to circulate her petition. Mrs. Walker telephoned defendant Nancy Simon, principal of the Lackawanna Trail Elementary School, and defendant Donald Leonard, president of the school board.
Shortly thereafter, Lisa Walker and Michael Serrano retained an attorney, who sent the school district a letter raising concerns about possible violations of Walker-Serrano's First Amendment rights. The district's solicitor, Sandra Boyle, responded that no rights were violated because Walker-Serrano was not prevented from expressing her views on the circus; she was simply told to put the petition away when her "activities briefly disrupted classroom instruction and may have contributed to a situation where another child fell down during recess." Boyle also expressed the view that "[e]lementary schools are not generally the environment for petition circulation."
On February 22, 1999, Walker-Serrano's parents accompanied her to the school board meeting to raise their concerns about the handling of the petition. Walker-Serrano's parents spoke, and the board and Principal Simon received copies of the petition, but no action was taken. Three days later, Solicitor Boyle sent a letter to Walker-Serrano's attorney noting ...