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Oyama v. University of Hawaii

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

December 29, 2015

Mark L. Oyama, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
University of Hawaii; Christine Sorensen; Jeffrey Moniz; John Does, 1-25; Jane Does, 1-25, Defendants-Appellees.

Argued and Submitted June 9, 2015 Honolulu, Hawaii

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Hawaii, D.C. No. 1:12-cv-00137-HG-BMK Helen W. Gillmor, Senior District Judge, Presiding.

Eric A. Seitz (argued), Della Au Belatti, and Sarah R. Devine, Honolulu, Hawaii, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Christine Tamashiro (argued), Darolyn H. Lendio, and Ryan M. Akamine, Honolulu, Hawaii, for Defendants-Appellees.

Greg Lukianoff, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for Amicus Curiae Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Eugene Volokh, UCLA School of Law, Los Angeles, California, for Amicus Curiae Student Press Law Center.

Before: Kim McLane Wardlaw, Marsha S. Berzon, and John B. Owens, Circuit Judges.

SUMMARY[*]

Civil Rights

The panel affirmed the district court's summary judgment in an action brought by a secondary education candidate alleging that the University of Hawaii's denial of his application to become a student teacher on the basis of his speech violated his First Amendment and due process rights.

The panel held that in the context of a public university's professional certification program, the university may evaluate a student's speech, made in the course of the program, in determining the student's eligibility for certification without offending the First Amendment under certain circumstances. In this case, because the University of Hawaii's decision to deny plaintiff's student teaching application directly related to defined and established professional standards, was narrowly tailored to serve the University's core mission of evaluating plaintiff's suitability for teaching, and reflected reasonable professional judgment, the University did not violate plaintiff's First Amendment rights. In addition, because the University granted plaintiff adequate procedural protections in denying his student teaching application, it did not violate plaintiff's due process rights.

OPINION

WARDLAW, Circuit Judge:

The University of Hawaii denied secondary education candidate Mark L. Oyama's application to become a student teacher, a prerequisite for recommendation to the State of Hawaii's teacher certification board. This appeal from the district court's grant of summary judgment to the University implicates the constitutional balance between two prerogatives of a public university's professional certification program: promoting open discourse among its students and limiting certification to candidates suitable for entry into a particular profession. We must delineate the scope of the University's authority to deny a teaching candidate's student teaching application on the basis of the candidate's speech. We conclude that the University did not violate Oyama's First Amendment rights because its decision related directly to defined and established professional standards, was narrowly tailored to serve the University's core mission of evaluating Oyama's suitability for teaching, and reflected reasonable professional judgment. In addition, because the University provided adequate procedural protections in denying Oyama's application, neither it nor its agents violated Oyama's procedural due process rights. We therefore affirm the district court's grant of summary judgment to the University.

I.

Mark Oyama earned an undergraduate degree in mathematics from the California Institute of Technology, followed by a Master's Degree in physics from the University of Hawaii. He then enrolled in the University of Hawaii's post-baccalaureate secondary education certification program at Manoa.

A. Hawaii's Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Secondary Education Program

Under Hawaii law, "[n]o person shall serve as a half-time or full-time teacher in a public school without first having obtained a license." Haw. Rev. Stat. § 302A-805. The purpose of teacher licensing, or certification, is to "ensure that education professionals possess the appropriate training, preparation, and competencies for teaching." Univ. of Haw. at Manoa, Secondary Teacher Education Program Handbook 26 (rev. 2009) ("Handbook").

The University of Hawaii at Manoa is Hawaii's only nationally accredited institution that recommends students for certification as secondary school teachers. Id. at i. The University offers a Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Secondary Education (PBCSE) Program (the "Program") to students who have bachelor's degrees and wish to obtain certification as secondary school teachers.[1] According to the Program's handbook, the Program's goal is "to employ and prepare educators who are knowledgeable, effective, and caring professionals." Id. at 8. The "caring" component seeks to "advanc[e] social justice and overcom[e] both discrimination and oppression" and "requires a high level of professionalism demonstrated through ethical behavior, competence, reflection, fairness, respect for diversity, and a commitment to inclusion and social responsibility." Id. at 8–9. The Program's requirements include coursework and one semester of student teaching. Admission to the Program does not guarantee admission to student teaching. Rather, students must submit a Student Teaching Application and must meet all student teaching requirements set forth in the Program's handbook. For example, a student teacher must "[a]ct, speak, and dress like a teacher."

The Program's student teaching requirements reflect the many regulations and policies governing admission to the teaching profession in Hawaii. First, the University must comply with the Hawaii Department of Education's policies and regulations. Pursuant to Department of Education Policy No. 5600, for example, the University may approve candidates for student teaching only "upon verification . . . of their ability to function effectively in Department classrooms." Second, the University must comply with the Hawaii Teacher Standards Board's (HTSB) teacher licensing and ethical standards. HTSB standards require teachers to, among other things, protect student safety, create an inclusive learning environment for all students, and demonstrate professionalism. Finally, the University is required to uphold the standards of its accrediting organization, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). See Nat'l Council for Accreditation of Teacher Educ., Standards for Professional Development Schools 11 (2001) (explaining that accredited institutions must "develop criteria consistent with state and national standards for candidates' admission to and completion of the preparation program and make recommendations for candidate certification based on the standards").

B. Oyama's Performance in the PBCSE Program

In the summer of 2010, Oyama enrolled in the University's PBCSE Program. Oyama began his coursework and completed a field experience practicum at a local middle school. During this period, several faculty members separately contacted Program administrators to express their concerns about Oyama's suitability for the teaching profession.

Oyama's statements concerning sexual relationships between adults and children were of central concern to the faculty. While taking Dr. Ratliffe's class on "Educational Psychology: Adolescence and Education, " Oyama was assigned to write a reflection about a video entitled "Growing Up Online." Oyama wrote:

Personally, I think that online child predation should be legal, and find it ridiculous that one could be arrested for comments they make on the Internet. I even think that real life child predation should be legal, provided that the child is consentual [sic]. Basically from my point of view, the age of consent should be either 0, or whatever age a child is when puberty begins.

When Dr. Ratliffe discussed these statements with Oyama, he said that "it would be fine" for a twelve-year-old student to have a "consensual" relationship with a teacher. When Dr. Ratliffe explained that state law would require Oyama to report such conduct, Oyama stated that he would obey the law and report the relationship, but still believed that such a "consensual" relationship was not wrong. Dr. Ratliffe contacted the Director of the Secondary Program, Dr. Moniz, about these statements, explaining that, while she did not "mind that [Oyama] has opinions that are different from other people's, " she was concerned that Oyama "may not be aware of and in agreement with safety issues about the adolescents who will be in his care." She cautioned that, "because of his lack of sensitivity to and empathy with others and lack of self-awareness at this time, we should be very careful about accepting him as a teacher candidate."

Another concern stemmed from Oyama's comments about teaching students with disabilities. For example, in his class on "Educating Exceptional Students in Regular Classrooms – Secondary, " Oyama expressed the belief that "if the disability is sufficiently severe and not of a physical nature . . . there is little benefit to inclusion for the disabled student" in the classroom environment. Oyama also wrote that it is not reasonable to expect secondary school teachers to have the "extremely diverse skillset" needed to teach the range of grade levels presented in a mainstream classroom that includes students with learning disabilities. In another assignment, Oyama asserted that nine of ten special education students he encountered were "fakers" and explained that he was "not convinced that many 'disabilities' are actual disabilities or medically-based neurological conditions, but are rather the crude opinions of psychologists and psychiatrists." Mr. Siegel, Oyama's professor, informed Dr. Moniz of his "serious concerns regarding Mark Oyama entering the teaching profession." Mr. Siegel also noted his concern to Oyama, clarifying that his concern was "not based on [Siegel's] opinion, " but rather on legal standards and his understanding, "based on [his] 43 years as an educator, " of the criteria schools consider in evaluating prospective teachers.[2]

Oyama's performance in a field experience program at a nearby middle school corroborated many of his professors' concerns. In the Field Experience Evaluation Form, several dispositions are listed, which are evaluated as "unacceptable, " "acceptable, " or "target, " the highest rating.[3] Oyama received multiple ratings of "unacceptable" and no ratings of "target." In the accompanying Observation/Participation Evaluation, Oyama received an "unacceptable" rating as to the ability to teach effectively, work collaboratively with colleagues, respond to suggestions from supervisors, and demonstrate the level of professionalism expected of middle school teachers. Oyama's supervising instructor, Dr. Irv King, concluded, "My overall impression is that Mark would not do well as a middle school teacher."

C. Denial of Admission to the Student Teaching Program

In January 2011, Oyama applied to the PBCSE Student Teaching Program. In a letter dated July 8, 2011, Dr. Moniz informed Oyama his application had been denied. While noting that Oyama had clearly met the "minimum" academic requirements, Dr. Moniz explained the University's "duty, " pursuant to Department of Education Policy No. 5600, to "verify your overall ability to function effectively as a teacher in a Hawaii Department of Education school." Dr. Moniz noted that a "number of factors raised the College of Education's concern, " specifying several bases for the University's decision. He explained:

[T]he views you have expressed regarding students with disabilities and the appropriateness of sexual relations with minors were deemed not in alignment with standards set by the Hawaii Department of Education, the National Council for the Accreditation ...

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