Oyama v. University of Hawaii

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Constitutional Law
  • Date Filed: 12-29-2015
  • Case #: 13-16524
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Circuit Judge Wardlaw for the Court; Circuit Judges Berzon and Owens
  • Full Text Opinion

A public university may deny an application for a professional certification without violating the applicant's First Amendment rights when the decision to deny the application is directly related to defined and established professional standards, is narrowly tailored to serve the University's mission, and reflects reasonable professional judgment.

Mark Oyama applied to the University of Hawaii to become a student teacher. Oyama’s application was denied due to concerns by his professors and faculty members at a middle school where he completed coursework. One concern that teachers felt were statements made by Oyama that child predation should be legal if the child consents. Another concern regarded statements by Oyama regarding children with disabilities, primarily that if a child’s disability is severe then there is slight benefit to include the student in the classroom and that a number of special education students he met were “fakers.” Oyama challenged the denial of his application as a violation of his First Amendment right to free speech. The district court held that the University did not violate Oyama’s rights; therefore defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit applied student speech and public employee speech doctrines, but found that neither was determinative in this case. The panel applied a framework from a set of decisions regarding free speech claims in certification situations, holding that the University’s decision was directly related to established professional standards, which governed sexual relationships with children and education of disabled students. A University can deny a student teaching application after finding that an applicant’s statements reflect a failure to learn the applicable professional standards without violating the First Amendment. Specifically, the University relied upon these standards, which were set out by state and federal law, the State Department of Education, and the University’s national accreditation agency. The panel also found that the University’s decision was narrowly tailored to serve its goal of training and educating professional individuals. Furthermore, the speech was directly related to teaching and the University’s decision was limited to statements made by Oyama in the context of the certification program. AFFIRMED.

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