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MO Case Tests Liability for Retaliatory Investigations

When a sexually active adolescent boy was abused by a sheriff's deputy, the victim's parents' attempts to protect him exposed them to a lengthy investigation by child welfare officials who accused the parents of neglect, for supposedly allowing the teen to seek sex on the Internet, The New Republic reports. The child-welfare investigation posed a threat of losing custody of their children and their jobs, since the possibility of going on the state's child abuse registry would block the parents from continued employment in law enforcement and teaching. After fighting to clear their names, they filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Missouri Department of Social Services and its investigator, winning a rare finding that authorities had waived their immunity from liability by using a child-welfare probe in retaliation against the parents for speaking out.

But the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the trial judge's immunity ruling, finding for the state because the court had "never recognized a retaliatory investigation claim of this kind." The Supreme Court declined to review the case. This outcome leaves a split in the lower federal courts. Most do not currently allow First Amendment claims for retaliatory investigations. Only in the 9th Circuit, which covers much of the West, can people bring such lawsuits. To the lawyers for the Missouri family, allowing the 8th Circuit decision on qualified immunity to stand sets a dangerous precedent. “It goes beyond protecting government officials from mistakes and instead it gives them a wide berth to engage in retaliation or harassment,” said family attorney Hugh Eastwood. “We know that will fall particularly on our most vulnerable citizens and those with the least resources to fight back.”


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