Honig v. Doe: Summary & Significance Video

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  • 0:05 Background on ''Honig v. Doe''
  • 0:42 Events Leading to…
  • 2:27 ''Honig v. Doe'' in Court
  • 4:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the Supreme Court decision Honig v. Doe. We discuss the initial events that led to the case, how the Supreme Court and lower courts ruled, and its implications for the future.

Background on Honig v. Doe

One of the things Americans prize most is their rights: whether it's the right to free speech, the right to a lawyer, or the right to a fair trial, Americans get their rights from the U.S. Constitution and from various laws made each day by our legislature.

As laws get made, it often falls to the courts to test these laws to determine just what rights these laws give us and how far they reach. The Supreme Court case, Honig v. Doe, is one example. In this lesson, we will explore Honig v. Doe, the events that led up to the case, and its impact.

Events Leading to Honig v. Doe

Honig v. Doe relates to the rights of children to a free education in the United States, in particular to students with disabilities. The plaintiff in this case, John Doe (his identity was protected as he was a minor), was a 17-year old child in San Francisco with emotional disabilities that included impulse-control and anger issues. In 1980, Doe choked another child who was taunting him. As he was being removed to the principal's office, he also kicked out a window. Doe was suspended, and shortly after, a San Francisco school district committee recommended his expulsion. He was suspended for the duration of the expulsion process.

Doe's treatment by the San Francisco school board during the case attracted a similar student, Jack Smith (identity also protected). Smith was an emotionally disturbed child who was routinely verbally hostile and aggressive with his classmates. Like Doe, Smith was initially suspended in 1980 before being expelled.

Feeling he was wronged, Doe brought suit against the San Francisco Unified School District and then school board superintendent, Bill Honig. Doe claimed the District violated his rights as detailed in the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA), arguing that he was being denied his right to a public education. Particularly, Doe claimed that by being suspended during the expulsion process, the District violated the EAHCA's stay-put provision which guaranteed eligible, handicapped children were kept in their current educational situation during any review or disciplinary proceedings. Though an initial agreement between the District and Smith was reached to homeschool the child, Smith joined Doe's lawsuit when he learned of it.

Honig v. Doe in Court

The federal district court, upon initial review of the case, agreed it had merit and issued an injunction returning Doe to school while the court case was being decided. The district court then decided in favor of Doe and Smith, saying their rights had been violated. It issued a permanent injunction barring the District from suspending any EAHCA-eligible student for more than five days if the behavior they were being suspended for was disability-related. The court went further as well, claiming that the law required the state to provide services to EAHCA-eligible students if the local school board did not. Upon appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with this ruling.

Honig and the District then appealed the case to the Supreme Court, claiming the lower courts had disregarded previous rulings, which set precedent that made the District's actions legal. They claimed there was a so-called dangerous exception to the stay-put provision, which allowed the District's actions if the subject was a danger to other students.

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