Doggone: False Statements and Free Speech in Clemmons v. Guilford Technical Community College

Sometimes, the motivation for chronicling a court decision is not because it is particularly groundbreaking; rather, it can simply be a confluence of peculiar facts and a reiteration of relevant legal principles.  That is certainly true with Clemmons v. Guilford Technical Community College, a case arising out of the United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, and one which serves as an example of the lengths to which some litigants will go to pursue a claim that is a dog, or at least about one.

The plaintiff in Clemmons was enrolled in a dental assistant program at Guilford Technical Community College in Jamesville, North Carolina [“GTCC”], when, on September 15, 2015, her dog was struck by a car and killed while Clemmons was walking it.  Although understandably distraught by this incident, Clemmons inexplicably sent the following text message to one of her professors:  “I won’t be in class today. My sister died in a car accident this morning” (emphasis added).  When her professor contacted her later that day, Clemmons thanked her, responding:  “It is not easy. Life is different now at home.”  Her classmates banded together and raised close to $200 in honor of Clemmons’ dead “sister.”

Clemmons subsequently informed various GTCC administrators and staff members that she was in the process of making funeral arrangements for her ten-year-old sister, that there was going to be a memorial service for her sister, and that she would be taking a few days off for “mental mollification.”  Because the service would be shortly thereafter, Clemmons explained that she would be wearing her black dress to class.  She also told another member of the Department that she had two sisters, Madison and Penelope, and that Penelope was the sister who died.  There is no mention as to whether Madison was also a dog or whether she was actually a sister.

Because Clemmons was reaching the maximum number of allowed absences without incurring an academic penalty, GTCC repeatedly requested a copy of her “sister’s” obituary.  Clemmons agreed to produce it — which would have made for interesting reading – but GTCC’s faculty then discovered through Facebook that Penelope was actually Clemmons’ dog.  Consequently, the dental assistant program’s director filed a formal complaint against Clemmons under GTCC’s Student Conduct Policy for having provided false information to GTCC, which obviously did not deter her, as during the hearing she falsely claimed that a service had been held for her dog at a local church.  Clemmons was suspended for the remainder of the school year and was required to take an ethics course prior to re-enrolling.  Having been suspended, she was unable to complete her coursework and received failing grades.

While one might have expected a chastened Clemmons to quietly slink away, she instead promptly filed suit against GTCC and Quentin Johnson, its Vice-President of Student Support Services, alleging the deprivation of her Fourteenth Amendment procedural and substantive due process rights, a violation of her First Amendment free speech rights, and certain state constitutional and statutory claims.  In a decision that was surprising only for its length and detail, the court granted the defendants’ summary judgment motions on all of the federal claims, and declined to exercise jurisdiction over the remaining state law allegations.

Of note was the court’s discussion of Clemmons’ First Amendment claim.  She asserted that GTCC could not regulate her speech as it was an “expression of grief” and did not affect the rights of other students.  Johnson argued that Clemmons’ speech was not protected because it was false.  The court concurred, noting that Johnson was not “regulating” the substance or viewpoint of Clemmons’ speech, nor did he ever prohibit it; rather, Clemmons was disciplined “for her repeated false statements.”  The court held that institutions of higher learning have a legitimate justification “for enforcing standards of honesty involving student behavior, particularly as it relates to interactions with faculty about school-related topics.”  The court added that demanding student honesty was especially reasonable in this case given faculty concerns about allowing a student who exhibited such dishonesty to practice in a clinical setting.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

Aside from the egregious nature and extent of the plaintiff’s deceit, and her apparent belief that she had done nothing wrong, there is perhaps little in Clemmons that would elicit a “Shazam” from that other, albeit fictional, denizen of North Carolina, Gomer Pyle.  Nonetheless, Clemmons is a helpful reminder that there are limitations on student speech that are not present elsewhere, such as in the workplace.  In reaching its holding, the Clemmons court quoted prior United States Supreme Court case law, specifically that schools “need not tolerate student speech that is inconsistent with its ‘basic educational mission.'”  That inconsistency includes false claims, whether they are oral or written.  Thus, while public schools, colleges and universities that establish a public forum cannot impose viewpoint-based restrictions on student speech, they need not permit – and can issue sanctions against – student dishonesty.

To read the full opinion, please click here.