Of Counsel

Legal Notes on Georgia and The South

Watts v. FIU, No. 05-13852

Posted by Maggie on August 18, 2007

It’s certainly a lovely thing to already have a reader-contributed-story when you’ve only been going for a day or so. So thanks to Adam for a bizarre 11th Circuit case released yesterday.

The basic facts involve a master’s student in a social work program in what’s basically a work-study sort of program. One of these where you have to put in a certain number of practice hours before graduation. All the trouble of this lawsuit comes from one rather insignificant thing. While counseling a patient, he recommended a bereavement support group and, noticing the patient’s religious persuasion on their form, included church as one of the places such a support group may be. For this, he is kicked out of the program, and thus can’t graduate.

If you take out all the legal issues in this suit, and they abound, just this circumstance strikes me as absurd. Especially since they note the patient’s religion on a chart in the first place. The practical lesson for Watts here is really a procedural one. The opinion does not specify which actions Watts took with the school itself, but that strikes me as the best way to go. Instead, we have a federal suit.

The major issue is whether Watts was a student or employee when it comes to regulation of speech. I agree with the court that judging Watts as a student under Tinker doesn’t make much sense. (I hesitate to apply that standard to any level of higher education. Especially since these cases–including the recent despicable Bong Hits 4Jesus case–have one of the major factors regulating student speech being maintaining order and discipline. I doubt these issues apply nearly as much on a college level.) However, the court’s reliance on Pickering for its standard also seems off. The counseling and advice given to a patient certainly doesn’t strike me as the same as other workplace speech. Especially when working at a psychiatric institution.

The court shoots down Watts, but then remands his case allowing him to go forward on a Freedom of Religion claim. While I’m all in favor of a lax standard for judging religious beliefs for 1st Amendment purposes, this one does seem rather odd. It seems to me that whether or not the speaker in this case had a firmly held religious belief, they certainly had a reason to believe the patient did. Based on this case, had Watts been an atheist, he would not have a successful claim. Instead, since he is religious and believes others should have religious counseling, it’s okay.

Generally, it seems everyone–the lower court, the appellate court, and the parties–are missing the point here. There’s a large category of people who think we’re overly litigious and a case like this certainly inclines one to agree. It blows my mind that the school didn’t work this out with Watts, especially for such a stupid thing. This is when I wish the Judge would thoroughly encourage the parties to reach a settlement to let the kid back in school.


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