Court strikes down Mich. Law that punishes students for ‘verbal assault’

A Michigan state law requiring all school districts to suspendor expel students who commit a “verbal assault” is unconstitutional, a federaljudge ruled this month.

“[The case] is an excellent example of how schooldistricts have abused zero-tolerance policies to squelch student speech,” saidMichael J. Steinberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union ofMichigan.

In September 2001, the ACLU of Michigan filed a lawsuit onbehalf of Alex Smith, then 17, claiming the Mount Pleasant School Districtviolated his First Amendment rights when administrators suspended him for 10days for a parody he wrote about the school’s tardy policy.

In histhree-page commentary, written in 2000 when he was a junior at Mount PleasantHigh School, Smith referred to his principal as a “skank” and “tramp” and saidthat people avoid talking to her because “no one likes to think about two schoolprincipals having sex.” Smith’s commentary also stated that his principaldivorced her husband after having an affair with another principal.

Smithsaid he did not intend for his parody to be heard by school officials. However,a teacher brought the commentary to the attention of administrators afteroverhearing Smith read it to a group of friends in the cafeteria.

Smith’ssuspension was based on the 1999 Michigan law that required all school districtsto suspend or expel students for committing a “verbal assault.” The MountPleasant School District created a policy that required a minimum 10-daysuspension for students who intimidate or threaten “the well-being, health,safety, or dignity of persons.”

In the Sept. 30 ruling, U.S. DistrictJudge David M. Lawson wrote that the state law and district policy could not beenforced because they were “unconstitutionally overbroad and vague.” Althoughthe law and policy may serve a purpose, the ruling said, they could not be usedto punish speech protected by the First Amendment. Lawson wrote, “the mere factthat someone might take offense at the content of speech is not sufficientjustification for prohibiting it.”

SPLC View: In order to pass constitutional muster,courts require that a government law, rule or policy (including a studentpublication policy) that seeks to restrict speech do so in a way that does notalso catch otherwise protected speech in its net. That was the problem here. Asthe judge in this case recognized, the term “verbal assault” was so vague andindefinite that all sorts of protected speech could also becensored.