ARKANSAS — The state supreme court last month overturneda junior high school student’s conviction for making a derogatorycomment toward her teacher, ruling that a state law prohibitingabuse or insults aimed at public school teachers is unconstitutionalbecause it violates the First Amendment.
In its decision, the court described the law as "overbroad,"stating that "the undefined terms ‘abuse’ and ‘insult’ couldinclude protected speech."
The law made it illegal for any person to abuse or insult ateacher while the teacher is performing school responsibilities.Violators could be charged with a misdemeanor and could be finedup to $1,500.
"Certain classes of speech may be prevented and punishedwithout running afoul of the U.S. Constitution," Judge RobertL. Brown said in the decision. "Thus a statute must be carefullydrawn or be authoritatively construed to punish only unprotectedspeech and not be susceptible of application to protected expression."
Stephany Yvonne Shoemaker was suspended from Oakdale JuniorHigh School for three days in October 1999 for calling her scienceteacher a bitch. She was later charged with violating the teacherinsult law and was convicted by a Benton County Circuit Courtjudge in April 2000. She appealed the conviction to the statesupreme court.
James Luffman, Shoemaker’s attorney, said he was pleased withthe decision.
"I thought it was a clear case," Luffman said. "Thestatute was so overbroad, I didn’t think it stood a prayer."
According to Luffman, the Shoemakers did not contest the schoolpunishment, only the criminal charges. He said filing criminalcharges against Shoemaker was "really bad overkill."
The court agreed and said in the decision, "We do notdisagree that the term ‘bitch’ is derogatory and insulting toa teacher and should be the subject of school discipline and controlby the school administration. the General Assembly went too farin [the law] when it criminalized undefined, insulting or abusivecomments by any person to a teacher irrespective of the time,place or manner of the speech."
The Arkansas Supreme Court’s decision in Shoemaker v. Stateof Arkansas is available online at: http://courts.state.ar.us/opinions/2001a/20010222/00-915.html