A public school in Michigan did not violate the First Amendment when it excluded a music vendor from a school event, a federal district court has ruled. The decision shows the continued importance of the public forum doctrine in First Amendment law.
West Michigan Band Instruments (WMBI) sued the Coopersville Public Schools (CAPS) after the school district excluded WMBI from a school-organized event on school grounds. CAPS excluded WMBI, because Meyer Music, another music vendor, was selected as the chosen vendor after a bidding process for a school event known as Parent Night.
WMBI sued CAPS in federal district court, contending that CAPS committed viewpoint discrimination by allowing one music vendor, Meyer Music, but not WMBI.
U.S. District Court Judge Paul L. Maloney of the Western District of Michigan dismissed the lawsuit in his May 10, 2018, opinion in W. Mich. Band Instruments, LLC v. Coopersville Pub. Sch. Judge Maloney determined that WMBI engaged in protected commercial speech in its business as a music vendor.
Then, the judge had to determine whether Parent Night – an event on public school grounds – was either a traditional public forum, a designated public forum, a limited public forum, or a nonpublic forum.
The difference in labeling is important in First Amendment jurisprudence, because if government property is considered a traditional public forum or a designated public forum, then the government can only discriminate against speakers based on content if the restrictions serve a compelling governmental interest in a narrowly tailored way.
On the other hand, if government property is considered a limited public forum or a nonpublic forum, then the government’s restrictions on speech must be reasonable and viewpoint neutral.
In this case, Judge Maloney reasoned that Parent Night was either a limited public forum or a nonpublic forum. Thus, the school district’s restriction of allowing only its chosen music vendor must only be viewpoint neutral and reasonable.
Judge Maloney first determined that the school district’s restriction was viewpoint neutral. Nothing in the record showed that the school discriminated against WMBI because of any viewpoint. Second, the judge determined that selecting a single vendor for Parent Night was “a matter of common sense that does not require a developed record to determine whether or not it is reasonable.” The policy allowed the school district to prohibit different music vendors from “tripping over each other,” as another federal district court had ruled last year.
“CAPS’ policy of only allowing a single band vendor at Parent Night, chosen after a competitive bid process, was eminently reasonable,” the judge concluded.
The decision appears rooted in common sense. A public school district should have the ability to prohibit multiple vendors from falling over themselves. The purpose of Parent Night was, as the judge noted, “about the students and their families” not the commercial interests of different music vendors.