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Can I Sue the National Honor Society?

The National Honor Society (NHS) is an educational organization with local chapters all over the United States that recognizes exceptional high school students who demonstrate skill in scholarship, leadership, service hours, and character. Founded more than 100 years ago, the NHS promotes community service to its more than one million student participants.

If you or your child have been unfairly denied membership in the NHS, you may be able to sue. Your lawsuit may be directly against the NHS or against the local school faculty council that determines your NHS admission. A civil rights attorney may be able to advise you on your rights and provide you with options moving forward.

Let's say you worked hard all through elementary school and middle school, always participating in community service projects, extracurricular school activities, and athletics. You've been passionate about honor society membership, and you've seen inductees across your school district make it through the selection process to get their NHS membership.

Your grade point average (GPA) is excellent and you, a high school junior, are encouraged by school officials, faculty members, and the student services office to join as an NHS member. Everyone seems confident about your odds of making it through the selection procedure. Since it's already your junior year in school, you won't have many other shots, and joining this school year would be ideal.

Suing on First Amendment Grounds

Still, your school board's NHS faculty council, which has the power to decide your fate, seems to have rejected you in violation of the bylaws for qualification.

That's exactly what happened to Justin Dangler in 1991. He got turned down despite a 3.93 GPA and his active participation in student volunteering activities. The school claimed Justin was turned down because of his alleged use of profanity against students and teachers, but Justin's parents believed the family's political activism was the real reason behind the rejection.

Concerned for their son's college prospects, Justin's parents sued in federal court, alleging that the school had violated Justin's civil right to free speech. Justin's parents also filed for a preliminary injunction against Yorktown Central Schools in court, asking a judge to issue a temporary stop order on the rejection until the case would be decided. Ultimately, the court sided with the school.

While the Dangler case wasn't directly against the NHS, but rather the local school that controlled the student's admission, it demonstrated that an NHS-related lawsuit is possible based on civil rights claims. However, the case also showed that suing on First Amendment free speech grounds might not be the best way to succeed unless you can actually prove that you were shut out from the NHS for your political activism alone.

The facts of every case are different, and theoretically, if your First Amendment rights were violated for reasons unrelated to just profanity, a court may find in your favor if you can argue that the NHS or its local school chapter wrongfully violated your Constitutional rights to free speech.

Suing Under Title IX for Sex Discrimination

In 1998, Somer Chipman and Chastity Glass of Kentucky sued the local NHS chapter in Grant County School District for not inviting them to join despite their all-star academic backgrounds. The school district had allegedly singled out the girls because they had become pregnant out of wedlock. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) disagreed with the school's alleged criteria, arguing for the girls in court that Somer and Chastity's sexual activity should not be relevant to their qualifications for joining the NHS.

The lawsuit, titled Chipman v. Grant County School District, hinged on whether the girls had been the subject of sexual discrimination under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a law that prohibited this very type of discrimination in schools that received federal aid. Early into the life of the case, the court hearing the matter granted a preliminary injunction in favor of the girls. The preliminary injunction was a court order instructing the school to allow the girls into the NHS.

Before the case went to trial, however, the ACLU obtained a favorable settlement for the girls that required the school to pay them damages and to be more transparent with its NHS qualification procedures.

Suing on Equal Protection & Due Process Grounds

The United States Constitution provides people with equal production and due process under the Fourteenth Amendment, which reads in part:

"All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law ; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

In that same case, Chipman v. Grant County School District, the ACLU also argued that Somer and Chastity's Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated. The ACLU's due process and equal protection arguments were that pregnancy status was not rationally related to the school's objective of inviting students into the NHS, and further, that the girls had a right to bodily autonomy.

We don't know how the court would have ultimately ruled, but the injunction suggests that it would have found in the young women's favor.

Other Ways to Sue

Another basis for a lawsuit is that the NHS violated its own rules. The NHS has its own bylaws in the form of a National Constitution. In addition to setting forth the organization's mission, the NHS National Constitution contains all the rules that faculty councils must follow in order to admit members. For example, it sets out dismissal procedures, which state in part:

Members who fall below the standards that were the basis for their selection shall be promptly warned in writing by the chapter adviser and given a reasonable amount of time to correct the deficiency, except that in the case of flagrant violation of school rules or the law, a member does not have to be warned.

If a faculty council revokes your membership for something small without any warning, you may have a legal right to sue.

There are other ways that you could sue the NHS or any of its local school chapters. Your ability to sue successfully depends on many factors, such as:

  • Whether you were disqualified due to legitimate reasons, e.g. your poor grades, or you were disqualified for a discriminatory purpose such as your physical characteristics;
  • Whether you were rejected because you didn't have enough volunteering experience, or you were rejected because the selection board didn't like the political platforms you supported;
  • Whether you were suspended from the NHS because you were caught cheating on exams, or because the NHS chapter in your school has a problem with your race, gender, or sexual orientation.

While you could be disqualified or dismissed for a legitimate reason, you would be able to sue if you were disqualified or dismissed for a discriminatory reason.

A Lawyer Can Help Whether or Not You Sue

Because the specific conduct of the NHS or a local NHS school chapter may or may not be in violation of the law, only a civil rights attorney can help you best determine whether your situation qualifies for a strong suit. Since there are many different ways to approach a civil rights case—including free speech issues, equal protection rights, and discrimination laws—going at it on your own would be risky at best and pointless at worst.

An experienced civil rights attorney can be very helpful to you even if they advise you that you can't or shouldn't sue. For example, even when a lawsuit is not an option or not the best choice given the specific facts of your case, a lawyer can help you submit a complaint directly to the NHS. Using an attorney for the online complaint process is important because a lawyer can help identify exactly which internal NHS policy has been violated, as citing the specific rule in your online complaint is a strict requirement.

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