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Cunningham v. Lenape Regional High District Board of Education

June 25, 2007

THOMAS CUNNINGHAM, PLAINTIFF,
v.
LENAPE REGIONAL HIGH DISTRICT BOARD OF EDUCATION AND DR. DANIEL HICKS, SUPERINTENDENT, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rodriguez, Senior District Judge

OPINION

This matter has come before the Court on Defendants' motion to dismiss the Complaint pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6).*fn1 Oral argument was heard on Thursday, September 28, 2006, and the record of that date is incorporated here. For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant the motion to dismiss under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1).

I.

Plaintiff Thomas Cunningham has alleged that his First Amendment rights were violated by Defendants Lenape Regional High School District Board of Education and Dr. Daniel Hicks, the Superintendent of the District. Specifically, Plaintiff contends that since approximately Fall of 2003, he "has expressed as a parent and private citizen his opinions regarding the qualifications and methods of coaching" of the Shawnee High School varsity wrestling coach. Plaintiff's son is a student at Shawnee High School, located within the Lenape Regional High School District, and has participated in the wrestling program there. Plaintiff also wrote a petition in an attempt to have the coach removed and "to curb certain of his coaching practices which endangered the athletes in his program." He maintains that all of the opinions he expressed were "of public concern." Several staff members, however, contended that Plaintiff's opinions were expressed because he wanted the wrestling head coaching job for himself.

On or about December 28, 2005, Plaintiff received a letter from an attorney for the Defendants stating that he was "no longer permitted to enter Lenape Regional High School District property," including for wrestling matches, basketball games, and graduation ceremonies. The letter warned that if Plaintiff did enter the property, he would be prosecuted for criminal trespass. This posed a problem for Plaintiff, in part because he served as coach of a youth wrestling program which used the District's facilities for its activities.

Accordingly, at the January 18, 2006 Board meeting, Plaintiff and his counsel appeared to set forth Plaintiff's position, but the Defendant Superintendent advised the Board and the public that Plaintiff had been banished from District property for "safety" reasons. Subsequently, the Superintendent, Board counsel, Board members and administrators met with Plaintiff and his attorney. The Superintendent advised Plaintiff during that meeting that "he had been banished from Board property due to a persistent pattern of abuse, harassment and threats towards staff members." As an example, the Superintendent stated that Plaintiff "had recently directed obscenities toward staff members." Plaintiff denied the allegations made at the meeting, claiming that the school authorities acted out of "an undifferentiated fear of him."

After the meeting, Plaintiff was advised that he would be permitted limited access to District property to coach for the youth program and to attend his son's wrestling matches. He was subject to conditions, however, of arriving at a specific time for coaching, "a duty to report when attending wrestling matches involving his son, a duty to immediately depart at the conclusion of a match, and a ban on any communications with any wrestler or staff member during a match."

Plaintiff's complaint alleges that the restrictions were placed on him "to prevent him from speaking regarding matters of public concern and to punish him for criticizing public officials and employees." He contends that his activities were protected by "the Free Speech and Petition Clauses of the First Amendment" and his "rights to free speech under the Constitution of New Jersey" were violated. Plaintiff summarizes his injuries as having missed matches involving his son in the interim of the December letter and the January compromise; having "been denied the right to enjoy the benefits of accommodations, events and functions" that other members of the public can enjoy; having "been denied the right to enjoy the benefits of being a parent of a student . . . [including] the ability to speak to school officials or otherwise act in matters concerning his son"; and having "been denied his rights to speak freely and petition his government for redress."*fn2

II.

Shortly after filing the Complaint in this matter, Plaintiff's attorney filed a motion for preliminary injunctive relief in the form of a rescission of the banishment of Plaintiff from District property. In support of the motion, Plaintiff filed an affidavit indicating that, in the Summer of 2004 at a public "open mat" wrestling event at another school, Plaintiff objected to the Shawnee wrestling coach's intention to wrestle with Plaintiff's son and other boys and stated that the coach could wrestle Plaintiff who would give him "$5,000 a point." As a result, the coach filed a police report to document the incident, which he perceived as a threat. Plaintiff also described in the affidavit how he lodged complaints about the coach in the Fall of 2004 because his lengthy practices were dangerous to the health of the athletes. When Plaintiff did not receive satisfactory responses, he wrote to the Board and to the other parents of wrestlers on the team, adding that the coach used "unorthodox and unrecognized training techniques, which in one instance had resulted in a severe injury to a team member."

Plaintiff's affidavit continues by describing and attaching a January 27, 2005 letter from the Principal of Shawnee High School. The letter outlines restrictions placed upon Plaintiff's visits to the school due to his "continued verbal and written attacks" on the wrestling coach and athletic director, which caused the coach concern for his safety and allegedly disrupted the normal operation of the school. At the end of that school year and into the Summer of 2005, Plaintiff admits that he "lobbied various officials" to express concern about reappointment of the wrestling coach, who Plaintiff deemed "unfit to be Coach and detrimental to the program." After a two-hour meeting with the Superintendent and Principal, the Superintendent wrote Plaintiff a letter explaining that the viewpoints about the coach were varied, but he would be reappointed, and a mentor for the coach was also retained to ensure fair treatment of the student athletes and to assist the Superintendent in making decisions about the future of the wrestling program.

On December 18, 2005, Plaintiff's son left a special practice because he was told he would have to compete for a place in the lineup by having a "wrestle off" with a student who was not present at the special practice, that is, Plaintiff's son was going to have to miss a meet because another student had missed the special practice. Plaintiff took his son back to the practice and discussed the matter with the wrestling coaches, after which Plaintiff's son was returned to the team. The coaches later characterized the exchange as verbally insulting and threatening.

Three days later, Plaintiff was present at a wrestling meet, and on two occasions wrestlers asked him for advice. In response, an assistant coach told Plaintiff that "they" did not want him communicating with the wrestlers. Plaintiff acquiesced, but stated "that the rule should apply to everyone." That week, the above-referenced letter from the Board's attorney was hand-delivered to Plaintiff.

At the conclusion of his affidavit, Plaintiff denies that he engaged in "any sort of 'alarming and threatening conduct'" and he asserts that he "would not be barred from publicly owned property, to which other members of the public are permitted access, if [he] had not expressed [his] opinions ...


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