Outing Gay Teen Didn’t Trample Privacy Rights

     (CN) – Two East Texas softball coaches who told a mother that her daughter is lesbian did not violate the student’s right to privacy, the 5th Circuit ruled.
     Barbara Wyatt sued the Kilgore Independent School District and two coaches from Kilgore High School in 2010.
     The complaint says softball coaches Rhonda Fletcher and Cassandra Newell aggressively confronted Wyatt’s 16-year-old daughter, S.W., about an alleged love triangle. The coaches said S.W. was involved with an older woman named Hillary Nutt and had told others that Nutt and Newell had also dated.
     Though S.W. had never told her mother she was a lesbian, the coaches confronted Wyatt about the teenager’s alleged relationship, according to the complaint.
     Wyatt said she made multiple complaints in defense of her daughter’s right to privacy, but the school district backed the coaches’ actions, saying “they were ‘legally obligated to share this information with the parent.'”
     The coaches furthermore alleged that S.W.’s relationship with Nutt was causing dissension among her teammates, and possibly encouraging underage alcohol and drug use.
     A federal magistrate in Tyler, Texas, denied Fletcher and Newell qualified immunity, but a divided three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit reversed that determination Friday.
     “There is no clearly established law holding that a student in a public secondary school has a privacy right under the Fourteenth Amendment that precludes school officials from discussing with a parent the student’s private matters, including matters relating to sexual activity of the student,” Judge Grady Jolly wrote for the New Orleans-based majority (italics in original).
     Wyatt cited only two “irrelevantly remote” 5th Circuit cases to support her case, according to the judgment.
     “The Fifth Circuit has never held that a person has a constitutionally-protected privacy interest in her sexual orientation, and it certainly has never suggested that such a privacy interest precludes school authorities from discussing with parents matters that relate to the interests of their children,” Jolly wrote.
     “Therefore, when the magistrate judge in this case held that there is a constitutional right that bars the unauthorized disclosure by school coaches of a student’s sexual orientation to the student’s mother, he proclaimed a new rule of law,” he added.
     With no clear violation of a federal right, Fletcher and Newell are therefore entitled to qualified immunity, the 20-page opinion states.
     In a dissenting opinion, Judge James Graves Jr. complained about the absence of circuit precedent establishing a privacy right for sexual orientation.
     “Based on the applicable authority and the coaches’ own admissions that they recognized the private nature of the information, the district court is absolutely correct that sexual orientation would fall within the categories of highly personal information protected by the right to privacy,” Graves wrote. “The District Court correctly held that, while the 5th Circuit has never explicitly held that a student has a right to privacy in keeping his or her sexual orientation confidential, an analysis of precedent compels the finding of such a right.”

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