Collins v. Putt, Docket No. 19-1169-cv

Decision Date29 October 2020
Docket NumberAugust Term, 2019,Docket No. 19-1169-cv
Citation979 F.3d 128
Parties Jeremy COLLINS, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Rebecca PUTT, In Her Individual and Official Capacity, Ed Klonoski, in His Official Capacity as President of Charter Oak State College, Defendants-Appellees, Charter Oak State College, Defendant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit

Jeremy Collins, pro se, Stamford, CT.

Mary K. Lenehan, Assistant Attorney General, for William Tong, Attorney General of the State of Connecticut, Hartford, CT, for Defendants-Appellees Rebecca Putt and Ed Klonoski.

Before: RAGGI, LOHIER, and MENASHI, Circuit Judges.

LOHIER, Circuit Judge:

Jeremy Collins, a student at Charter Oak State College, filed this lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that his instructor at the college, Defendant-Appellee Rebecca Putt, violated his First Amendment rights when she removed from a college message board the online blog post that Collins submitted in response to a class assignment. Collins further alleged that Putt and Charter Oak's President, Ed Klonoski, violated his right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment by failing to follow the college's internal disciplinary policies before disciplining him for the post. The United States District Court for the District of Connecticut (Covello, J. ) dismissed Collins's suit for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). On appeal, Collins contends that the District Court's dismissal was error. He principally argues that the District Court applied the wrong legal standard when evaluating his First Amendment claim and misread the college's disciplinary policies when considering his Fourteenth Amendment claim. For the reasons that follow, we AFFIRM the District Court's judgment dismissing Collins's claims.

BACKGROUND
I

The following facts are taken from Collins's operative, second amended complaint and from documents integral to it. See WC Cap. Mgmt., LLC v. UBS Sec., LLC, 711 F.3d 322, 325 (2d Cir. 2013).

In 2017 Collins enrolled in an online class entitled "Communications 101" at Charter Oak State College. The class was taught using software that "provides a virtual classroom environment," which allows for the submission of assignments and for communication via a message board available only to students enrolled in the class, the class instructor, and college administrators. App'x 9–10. Two weeks into the term, Putt, the instructor, asked the class to watch a video that depicted a young man conversing with and assisting an elderly disabled person. Putt then provided the class with a list of questions about the video and instructed the students to post their answers to those questions on the virtual classroom's online message board. The questions required the students to evaluate the conversation between and the perceptions of the individuals depicted in the video.

Collins responded with a blog post that his complaint describes as "intentionally humorous, ironic and provocative" and as "includ[ing] what might be reasonably called a critique of the assignment and materials themselves." App'x 26. Collins's blog post, which is attached to his complaint, states that the assigned video was "excruciatingly awkward," "ridiculous," and depicted "two complete idiots hav[ing] a conversation that could only take place in an alternate reality on a planet far, far away." App'x 41. The post describes the older character as "cranky," "self pitying," "offended," "angry," and engaged in "miserable griping." App'x 41.

In response to the post, Putt told Collins that while she did not "mind a bit of humor here and there, ranting about the classroom materials in a manner that some might find offensive will not be tolerated." App'x 29. Putt soon removed Collins's post, as well as all the comments on the post that had been made by Collins and other classmates. Collins accused Putt of censoring his work, and he promised to demand that Putt "be educated on the civil rights of ... students." App'x 30.

II

Collins eventually sued Putt, claiming in his operative complaint that Putt's deletion of his blog post violated his First Amendment right to freedom of expression. The District Court, relying on Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260, 271–73, 108 S.Ct. 562, 98 L.Ed.2d 592 (1988), concluded that Putt's deletion did not violate Collins's First Amendment rights because it was "reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns." The District Court therefore dismissed the claim and ultimately dismissed Collins's complaint in its entirety.

This appeal followed.

DISCUSSION

In this opinion we address four issues. First, we consider whether it was error for the District Court to rely on the Hazelwood standard rather than the standard announced by the Supreme Court in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503, 89 S.Ct. 733, 21 L.Ed.2d 731 (1969). This requires that we address Collins's argument that his blog post was not sponsored by the college. Second, we consider whether the District Court properly applied the Hazelwood standard to the alleged facts in this case. Third, we determine whether Putt's alleged actions were plausibly viewpoint discriminatory so as to state a First Amendment claim.1 Finally, we resolve Collins's due process argument under the Fourteenth Amendment. We address each of these issues in turn, mindful that "[w]e review de novo a district court's dismissal of a complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), construing the complaint liberally, accepting all factual allegations in the complaint as true, and drawing all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor." Dolan v. Connolly, 794 F.3d 290, 293 (2d Cir. 2015) (quotation marks omitted).

I

We first consider whether the District Court erred by analyzing Collins's First Amendment claim under Hazelwood. We conclude that it did not.

The Supreme Court has announced various tests or "standards for assessing whether a school's censorship of student speech is constitutionally permissible." Guiles ex rel. Guiles v. Marineau, 461 F.3d 320, 324 (2d Cir. 2006). Only two of these standards, under Hazelwood and Tinke r, are relevant to this appeal. We have referred to Hazelwood and Tinker as identifying "two categories of student expression in the school environment, each of which merits a different degree of judicial scrutiny in connection with school-imposed speech restrictions," Peck ex rel. Peck v. Baldwinsville Cent. Sch. Dist., 426 F.3d 617, 627 (2d Cir. 2005), with Tinker being more protective of student speech than Hazelwood, see DeFabio v. E. Hampton Union Free Sch. Dist., 623 F.3d 71, 79 (2d Cir. 2010).

If Collins's blog post constituted a "school-sponsored expressive activit[y]," then the deferential standard announced in Hazelwood applies. Hazelwood, 484 U.S. at 273, 108 S.Ct. 562 ; see Marineau, 461 F.3d at 327. We evaluate whether a student's speech is "school[ ] sponsored" based on whether "students, parents, and members of the public might reasonably perceive" the speech "to bear the imprimatur of the school." Hazelwood, 484 U.S. at 271, 108 S.Ct. 562. Under the Hazelwood standard, educators may regulate student speech "so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns." Id. at 273, 108 S.Ct. 562. This is because "[t]he determination of what manner of speech in the classroom or in school assembly is inappropriate properly rests with the school ... rather than with the federal courts." Id. at 267, 108 S.Ct. 562 (quotation marks omitted).

If, on the other hand, Collins's post constituted "a student's personal expression that happens to occur on the school premises," id. at 271, 108 S.Ct. 562, then the standard is supplied by Tinker. Under the Tinker standard, school officials may regulate student speech that the school does not sponsor if that speech would "materially and substantially disrupt classwork and discipline in the school." Marineau, 461 F.3d at 325 (citing Tinker, 393 U.S. at 513, 89 S.Ct. 733 ).2

Regardless of the standard, we keep in mind that the First Amendment rights of students "must be applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment." Morse v. Frederick, 551 U.S. 393, 397, 127 S.Ct. 2618, 168 L.Ed.2d 290 (2007) (quotation marks omitted).

Collins insists that Tinker, not Hazelwood, governs this case. We disagree. As we have explained, Hazelwood "comes into play ... when the student speech is school-sponsored or when a reasonable observer would believe it to be so sponsored." Marineau, 461 F.3d at 327 (quotation marks omitted). Hazelwood applies to student speech that "may fairly be characterized as part of the school curriculum, whether or not [it] occur[s] in a traditional classroom setting, so long as [it is] supervised by faculty members and designed to impart particular knowledge or skills to student participants and audiences." Peck, 426 F.3d at 628 (quotation marks omitted).

Here, Collins's blog post bears the hallmarks of school sponsorship. It was made specifically in response to a class assignment, under the supervision of a college faculty member, and on a message board that was provided by the college offering the class. The message board in turn was designed as a pedagogical tool to convey information to class participants and to receive communications from them, particularly, their completed class assignments. The message board bore the college's initials and was accessible only to the class's students, instructor, and the college's administrators. We have pointed to the same or similar characteristics to conclude that student speech was "school-sponsored, or at least ... constituted an expressive activit[y] that students ... and members of the public might reasonably perceive to bear the imprimatur of the school, which is sufficient to trigger the application of Hazelwood." R.O. ex rel. Ochshorn v. Ithaca City Sch. Dist., 645...

To continue reading

Request your trial
9 cases
  • Radwan v. Manuel
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit
    • November 30, 2022
  • Wilson v. Conn. Dep't of Corr.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Connecticut
    • December 16, 2020
  • Radwan v. Manuel
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit
    • November 30, 2022
    ... ... issue. See, e.g. , Collins v. Putt , 979 F.3d ... 128, 134 n.3 (2d Cir. 2020) (applying ... ...
  • Radwan v. Manuel
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit
    • November 30, 2022
    ... ... issue. See, e.g. , Collins v. Putt , 979 F.3d ... 128, 134 n.3 (2d Cir. 2020) (applying ... ...
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT