Supreme Court to look at Title IX retaliation

Posted: Tuesday, June 15, 2004

WASHINGTON (AP) The Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear a case that could expand the protection offered by Title IX, the federal law known best for promoting women's athletics.

The 1972 law bars sex discrimination in schools and education generally. Sometime next fall, the court will look at whether the law also protects people who are not themselves the victim of discrimination but who suffer consequences because they have complained about it.

At the urging of the Bush administration and others, the court said it will hear an appeal from a former girls' basketball coach who claims he was fired when he complained that his players got second-class facilities and less money than the boys.

Roderick Jackson had been a public school gym teacher and girls' basketball coach in Birmingham, Ala., for several years before the school system transferred him to Ensley High School.

Jackson said he quickly discovered that Ensley denied his team equal financing, equipment or facilities, and he protested to his supervisors.

Jackson claims he received poor performance reviews after he complained, and in May 2001 he was fired as coach.

When Jackson sued, a federal judge threw out the case on grounds that Title IX includes no specific right to go to court over alleged retaliation. The Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the same way last year, noting the law ''makes no mention of retaliation at all.''

Jackson's lawyers said that view undermines the purpose of Title IX and is at odds with other federal courts.

''If schools and other defendants could freely retaliate against those who protest discriminatory treatment, they would effectively be engaging in the discrimination prohibited by'' the law, lawyers from the National Women's Law Center wrote.

Lawyers for the Birmingham school board argued the high court should not get involved. In passing Title IX, Congress did not intend to give individuals this kind of power to sue, the school system argued.

Also, the lawyers argued, allowing such a retaliation suit could open the door for other litigation claiming schools had spent money unfairly.

''Bringing disputes about allocation of facilities and equipment into federal court under an anti-retaliation rubric would serve only to divert scarce resources away from the educational mission,'' the lawyers wrote.

The case gives the court its first opportunity to consider the scope of Title IX since the Bush administration reviewed whether the law was being implemented fairly. Critics such as the College Sports Council, an organization of coaches and athletic groups, say that Title IX can lead to schools cutting sports programs for men to create a better balance in male-female athletics.

Women's sports and legal groups said they feared the administration would undermine the law and set back advancements in women's athletics, and a commission studying Title IX bogged down in disagreement. Ultimately, education officials said last year they would reaffirm and better explain their policies.

''Congress would have understood that, by prohibiting sex discrimination in federally funded educational programs, it was simultaneously forbidding recipients from retaliating against persons who complain about that form of discrimination,'' Solicitor General Theodore Olson wrote.

''Congress would have seen no need to enact a prohibition that specifically referred to retaliation,'' he said.

The administration also argued it makes no sense to limit protection under Title IX to students or others directly affected by alleged sex discrimination.

''Teachers and coaches are often in a much better position to identify sex discrimination and express opposition to it than are the students who are denied equal educational opportunities,'' Olson wrote.

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