Unjustly Usurping the Parental Right: Fields V. Palmdale School District

Article excerpt

The right of a parent to control his child's upbringing is one of the few fundamental rights recognized by courts as protected under the doctrine of substantive due process. (1) Rooted in vague pronouncements made in two cases decided in the 1920s, Meyer v. Nebraska (2) and Pierce v. Society of Sisters, (3) this amorphous parental right has never been clearly defined by the Supreme Court. (4) This lack of guidance has proven especially troublesome in the context of public schools where parents have attempted to shield their children from school mandates ranging from dress codes (5) to sex education. (6) Were parental rights to dominate school interests, public education would become untenable, as each parent would effectively hold veto power over the school's curriculum. Thus, many courts have envisioned the Meyer-Pierce right as a balance between the competing interests of the parents and the schools. (7) Yet not until Fields v. Palmdale School District (8) did a federal appellate court establish a bright-line rule for parental rights claims relating to a public school's actions.

In Fields, Judge Reinhardt of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held--rousing much controversy (9)--that "the Meyer-Pierce right does not extend beyond the threshold of the school door." (10) Though described by some as a restrained opinion, (11) Fields construes precedent broadly, ignores parental interests, and emasculates the Meyer-Pierce right in the public school setting. Instead of cutting off parental rights inside public schools, the court should have recognized the delicate interplay between the difficult job of educating students from differing backgrounds and the parental right to inculcate moral standards in their own children. (12) When the parental interest asserted is fundamentally central to the parent-child relationship, the public school must not be given a free pass.

This case began when Kristi Seymour, a volunteer mental health counselor at the Mesquite Elementary School and a master's student in psychology, developed and administered a psychological survey for first, third, and fifth grade students with the goal of "establish[ing] a community baseline measure of children's exposure to early trauma." (13) Ten of the survey questions involved sexual topics. (14) Prior to the administration of the survey, Seymour sent letters informing the parents of the survey, explaining its goals, and asking for parental consent. (15) Though Seymour's letter noted that the survey was intended to establish a baseline measure of student exposure to "early trauma (for example, violence)" and that the questions might make a student "feel uncomfortable," (16) there was no mention of the survey's sexual content. (17) After the school district approved the survey, Seymour administered it to the students, aged seven to ten, in the elementary school during school hours. (18)

Parents of the children who participated in the survey learned of the survey's sexual content and alleged that had they known of the true nature of the survey, they would not have permitted their children to participate. (19) After pursuing an unsuccessful tort claim against the Palmdale School Board, they filed suit in the District Court for the Central District of California, alleging violations of their federal constitutional right to privacy. (20) The court, acknowledging the Meyer-Pierce right, stated that the liberty interest asserted by plaintiffs--of "controlling the upbringing of their children by introducing them to matters of and relating to sex in accordance with their personal and religious values and beliefs" (21)--did not exist. (22) Pointing to the First Circuit's decision in Brown v. Hot, Sexy & Safer Productions, (23) the district court distinguished the asserted liberty interest from those in Meyer and Pierce, finding, as did the Brown court, that Meyer and Pierce only "'evince the principle that the state cannot prevent parents from choosing a specific educational program'. …