Parents and others who insult school officials in public are not protected from prosecution by constitutional guarantees of free speech, a Ventura County Superior Court judge has ruled in ordering a Moorpark man and a Simi Valley woman to go to trial Monday.
The two are charged in unrelated cases under an obscure 1943 law that makes it a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 to criticize a teacher on or next to school grounds in the presence of other school personnel or students.
Nancy Wingrove, 34, of Simi Valley and Ronald Lee Chunn, 20, of Moorpark sought to have charges filed against them last year dismissed last week on grounds that the law is vague and violates their First Amendment rights of free speech.
In ruling against the two defendants, Judge Charles R. McGrath said only that in his view the law is "acceptable and proper and not overbroad."
Wingrove is accused of yelling at an administrator who she believed had unjustly accused her son of a bicycle theft. She allegedly confronted Assistant Principal Ron Lucio of Hillside Junior High School in Simi Valley in his office last December, repeatedly threatening: "I will sue you. I will get you, sucker."
Chunn allegedly directed obscenities at Moorpark Memorial High School Principal Mary Quirk and school district Supt. Michael R. Slater after Quirk told him to leave a bonfire pep rally at the school last November. Chunn said he is a graduate of Moorpark and had a right to be there.
In both cases, school officials who heard the insults reported them to police.
Chunn was arrested the next day and released on $500 bail. Wingrove was not arrested but was sent a letter by the district attorney's office ordering her to appear in court and was then released on her own recognizance.
Deputy Public Defender J. Michael Neary, who represents both defendants and said he will appeal the decision, had argued that the law separates teachers into a "protected class. It means you can't go down to a school and stand up for a kid . . . or go to a parent-teacher night and complain about a particular teacher."
But Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael D. Schwartz contended that the law "recognizes society's special concern with maintaining order in its schools," even though for any given law "you can think up instances where the facts might seem outlandish." He said teachers should not be forced to tolerate abusive language in front of their students.
"The intent of this law is to keep order in schools, and I submit that that is wise public policy," he said.
He said there is precedent for laws that protect specific groups--laws that prohibit outbursts in court, for example.
The disputed statute, contained in the state's Education Code, is rarely used and has never been considered by an appellate court, both sides said.
"It was usually used when some parent got too wild and started insulting everyone," said Roger Segure of the United Teachers of Los Angeles. "It hasn't been used much in recent years because judges feel it's too vague. Over the years, parents have been regarded as having the right to interfere in school matters."