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Hostrop v. Board of Junior College District No. 515

decided: December 21, 1972.


Swygert, Chief Judge, Castle, Senior Circuit Judge, and Pell, Circuit Judge.

Author: Castle

CASTLE, Senior Circuit Judge.

Appellant Richard W. Hostrop appeals the action of the district court dismissing his civil rights complaint against the Board of Junior College District No. 515 and its members for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The basic question on this appeal is whether the rights of free expression and procedural due process traditionally given to teachers and other public employees extend also to a college president who was hired to act as the direct agent of a school board.

Plaintiff Hostrop's complaint alleged the following facts, which we shall take as true for the purposes of this appeal. Hostrop was appointed President and chief administrative officer of Prairie State Junior College in Chicago Heights, Illinois by the defendants through a series of contracts which extended his tenure until June 30, 1972.*fn1 On May 25, 1970, as part of his official duties, plaintiff prepared a confidential memorandum for circulation among his administrative staff which requested that the staff consider certain proposed changes in the college's ethnic studies program for discussion at the next staff meeting. After an unknown person made a copy of this memorandum public, certain defendants questioned Hostrop's right to make such a proposal and told him that it was a breach of his administrative duties and was not a matter of free expression. On July 13, 1970, plaintiff was summoned to the office of counsel which the Board had recently hired and told that he had the choice of resigning or taking the consequences of being fired. The publication of the memorandum was mentioned as being a prime reason for Hostrop's termination, although he was told that he would be fired without any notification of the charges against him. Ten days later the Board met and terminated Hostrop's contract without giving him any hearing or opportunity to speak in his defense. A list of charges that supposedly justified his termination was given to Hostrop some time later.*fn2

Plaintiff's complaint concluded that the alleged facts showed a deprivation of his right to free speech and a denial of due process of law, and asked that the court order the college to give him a full and complete hearing, enjoin the defendants from replacing him with another person as president, and declare that his dismissal violated his first amendment rights. A second count of the complaint alleged the same facts as the first count plus the facts that the defendants had violated the Illinois anti-secrecy statute and that the plaintiff had suffered both mental strain and financial loss because of the defendants' conduct. This count asked for recovery of actual damages of $100,000 and punitive damages of $500,000.

The district court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted,*fn3 Hostrop v. Board of Junior College District No. 515, 337 F. Supp. 977 (N.D.Ill.1972), finding that Hostrop's position as a college president directly responsible to the Board required that he be loyal to the Board and maintain its confidence in him as conditions of his continued employment. Reasoning from a remark in Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563, 88 S. Ct. 1731, 20 L. Ed. 2d 811 (1968), that first amendment rights of persons in personal and intimate working relationships with their superiors may be restricted, the court found that Dr. Hostrop's position vis-a-vis the Board required that his right to make public statements or to disagree with the Board be limited. 337 F. Supp. at 978-979. Applying the test of Cafeteria Workers v. McElroy, 367 U.S. 886, 81 S. Ct. 1743, 6 L. Ed. 2d 1230 (1961), to balance the interests of the Board against those of Dr. Hostrop, the court found that the need of the Board to have wide discretion in deciding to fire its presidents without asserting reasons outweighed any need of the plaintiff to know the reasons for his dismissal and any harm to his professional career. 337 F. Supp. at 980.

Initially, we note that the disposition of a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim in a case such as this one is an extremely difficult task. As the district court recognized, resolution of the issues requires an analysis of the working relationship between Dr. Hostrop and the Board and a balancing of the various competing interests of each. Unfortunately, the record at this stage of the litigation does not clearly define the working relationship between the parties. It does not indicate how closely Hostrop had to follow the dictates of the Board -- how often he met with the Board, how much power he had to formulate educational policy with the Board's blanket approval, or whether he had any ability to debate Board members on certain issues that would be decided by a vote of the Board. A consideration of these factors would indicate more clearly whether Hostrop's right to make his recommendations or to disagree with the Board had to be limited, as the district court asserted, "in order for the working relationship between them to be effective." Similarly, the record does not identify the nature of the competing interests or the extent to which they are irreconcilable -- how a hearing procedure would interfere with the discretion of the Board in hiring and firing personnel, whether other administrators were granted hearings before action was taken against them, and what the effects of the hearings given others actually were. With these short-comings in the record in mind, we turn to the allegations of the complaint.

I. Preparation of the Memorandum As a Ground for Discharge

Plaintiff argues on this appeal that the protections that have traditionally been given to the speech and associations of academicians*fn4 should extend also to his circulation of the ethnic studies memorandum. It is true that the judiciary has steadfastly construed the concept of freedom of expression broadly as a means of prompting vigorous, robust debate,*fn5 and that it has consistently rejected attempts to formulate absolute rules which would restrict the first amendment rights of whole classes of individuals, whether they be students,*fn6 campus speakers,*fn7 school newspaper editors,*fn8 student organizers,*fn9 or teachers.*fn10 Against this commitment to academic freedom, defendants are asking this court to excise a class of academic personnel who will have no first amendment rights.

Defendants argue that college administrators like Dr. Hostrop can be discharged whenever they circulate proposals that might offend the sensibilities of the Boards that hired them, for their jobs require that they do not offend the Boards. Defendants rely upon language from Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563, 88 S. Ct. 1731, 20 L. Ed. 2d 811 (1968), to differentiate between teachers and administrators, one class which may dissipate the confidence of the school board by making certain statements, and one class which cannot afford to:

The statements are in no way directed towards any person with whom appellant would normally be in contact in the course of his daily work as a teacher. . . . Appellant's employment relationships with the Board, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, with the superintendent are not the kind of close working relationships for which it can persuasively be claimed that personal loyalty and confidence are necessary to their proper functioning.

It is possible to conceive of some positions in public employment in which the need for confidentiality is so great that even completely correct public statements might furnish a permissible ground for dismissal. Likewise, positions in public employment in which the relationship between superior and subordinate is of such a personal and intimate nature that certain forms of public criticism of the superior by the subordinate would seriously undermine the effectiveness of the working relationship between them can also be imagined. We intimate no views as to how we would resolve any specific instances of such situations, but merely note that significantly different considerations would be involved in such cases.

Id. at 569-570, n. 3, 88 S. Ct. at 1735. Defendants submit that personal loyalty and confidence are necessary for the proper functioning of the working relationship between Dr. Hostrop and themselves, and that since the circulation of the ethnic studies memorandum could have arguably affected this loyalty and confidence, Hostrop can be discharged.

We do not interpret the above-quoted remarks from Pickering so as to support defendants' position on this appeal, especially when that case is placed within the context of other first amendment decisions. It has been consistently held that a government cannot punish a person for his speech alone, but only for speech that causes substantial disruption or that hinders the functioning of the state.*fn11 In this perspective, Pickering should not be read to authorize the discharge of a college president merely because he expresses an opinion that could be interpreted as a sign of disloyalty or an undermining of the confidence placed in him. Instead, Pickering holds that an employee's speech may be regulated only if a public entity can show that its functions are being substantially impeded by the employee's statements. Donahue v. Staunton, 471 F.2d 475, at 483 (7th Cir. 1971) (Swygert, C.J. dissenting). We find that Dr. Hostrop's suggestions about the ethnic studies program which appear in the complaint cannot, on their face and by themselves, be taken as a serious impairment of the effectiveness of the working relationship between him and the Board that the defendants could ...

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