Out-of-school speech is protected, court rules

ARKANSAS — A junior high school student in the Pulaski County SchoolDistrict was expelled for one year in September because of profane writinghe did at home — but a federal judge reinstated him less than two weekslater, ruling the school district violated the student’s First Amendmentrights.

In September, U.S. District Judge George Howard Jr. granted a temporaryrestraining order in the case, allowing Northwood Junior High School eighth-graderJosh Mahan to return to his studies at the local alternative school. Howardaffirmed his original ruling with a permanent injunction in November. Doev. Pulaski County Special School Dist., No. 4:00CV00707 GH (E.D. Ark.Nov. 22, 2000).

Mahan, 14, represented by the Arkansas American Civil Liberties Union,drew the one-year expulsion after school officials obtained a letter hewrote about his recent break-up with another student, Kelly Gregg. He didnot bring the letter, described in court documents as “patently offensive”with references to “violence, misogynism, and suicide,” to school. Rather,it was stolen from his home by another friend who later gave the letterto Gregg.

Gregg then turned the letter over to school authorities.

Mahan’s initial punishment called for a one-semester suspension for”terroristic threatening.” He was to spend the suspension in alternativeschool, where he could complete his course work.

His parents challenged the suspension to the full school board, whichruled Sept. 12 not only to uphold the suspension, but to lengthen it intoa full-year expulsion and bar Mahan from attending alternative school.

“Even though the letter contained what are arguably ‘threatening words,’Josh did not intend to convey those words to anyone,” Howard said in hisopinion. “Josh was expelled from school solely because of protected speechcontained in a private document taken from his home without his permission.[School officials’] actions violated Josh’s rights under the First Amendment.”

Rita Sklar, executive director of the Arkansas ACLU, approved of thedecision.

“No government official has the right to punish a person for expressinghis or her feelings,” she said. “If the government could punish uncommunicatedthought or feelings, how many of us could be jailed for the pages of ourjournals or the contents of unsent letters?”