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School Board Membership “is not for the thin‐skinned”

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June 5, 2018

By Mary Deweese

In Manley v. Law, the Seventh Circuit recently held that, where a district undertook an investigation into a school board member’s alleged bullying of a student, the investigation and subsequent reprimand did not violate the school board member’s due process rights.

The controversy began at a school play. A student was distributing leaflets in support of the political opponents of a school board member. The board member and the student got into a “verbal altercation” – the board member maintained that the student’s leafletting violated school board policy, and the student accused the board member of bullying her. The district superintendent initiated an investigation into the board member’s behavior. Eventually, the school board issued a reprimand against the board member for violating a board policy of “mutual respect, civility and orderly conduct.” The investigation and reprimand did not affect the board member’s legal rights or legal status.

The board member’s lawsuit alleged that the investigation and reprimand infringed on her constitutional right to due process, specifically alleging a violation of her rights to fair-dealing by the government, emotional well-being, and the processes mandated by the state and the district. In holding that no due process violation occurred, the Seventh Circuit found that there is no constitutional right to a feeling of fair-dealing or emotional well-being. In response to the board member’s allegation that the district did not follow local or state policy and law in its investigation, the Court reasoned that “the federal Constitution does not enforce compliance with state procedural rules” – that is,  there is no federal due process right to have board procedure followed where the procedure does not include a substantive liberty or property interest (such as the right to secure employment created by an ordinance only permitting employees to be fired for good cause). The Court further noted that there is no constitutional guarantee of good feelings or polite manners in political disputes – “American politics is not for the thin-skinned, even, or perhaps especially, at the local level.”  

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