Former student considers suing high school over suspension for reference to racial slur

IDAHO — An Idaho teenager is planning to sue his schooldistrict for suspending him after a reference to a racial slur was printed inthe student newspaper.

Sam Lyle, a staff writer for Pocatello High School’s Chieftanin Pocatello, Idaho, said he was suspended for having prior knowledge of thearticle’s content.

The beginning of the story, which was a profile of Lyle, noted the lettersin “ginger” could be rearranged to spell a derogatory word and wasmeant as a reference to the 17-year-old Lyle being a redhead.

Roughly a month before publication, Lyle said he told the author — who is also his friend — the comment “won’t getpublished, don’t waste your time.”

But the student left the remark in the article when submitting it. Thepiece passed through two student editors, an all-class edit from which Lyle wasabsent, and review by the paper’s adviser before going to press.

Both Lyle and the article’s author were suspended for a week — the remainder of their senior year — including from activities like promand the senior breakfast. School officials froze his grades and allowed him toattend graduation and receive his diploma.

Lyle said none of the other students — including editors — werepunished.

“My client has not said, has not done anything offensive,” hislawyer Patrick Duffin said.

In documents relating to Lyle’s suspension, school officials allegehe should have edited out the comment. But Duffin and Lyle disagree, noting hedid not write the story or have editorial control of the paper.

What could have fueled the situation was the layout of the page. Lyle wasthe author of an article placed directly next to the one including the racialcomment. The two staff writers shared a joint byline over the separate articles,though Lyle added he had no control over his co-worker’s story.

Shortly after the suspension, Lyle’s family requested an injunctionagainst the school district hoping he would be able to attend prom, but therequest was denied, Duffin said.

“The whole situation has gotten ridiculously out of hand,” Lylesaid. “All I really want is to get my name cleared. I’m just sick ofrumors going around like crazy.”

Lyle said one of the paper’s editors removed the questionablesentence twice before publication but the change was not saved in the pagedesign program.

Duffin said much of the blame should fall on school officials, adding theyhave not altered the paper’s editing process or disciplined theadviser.

He cited the Supreme Court’s decision in Hazelwood School Districtv. Kuhlmeier, which permits high school administrators to censor manyschool-sponsored publications simply by showing they have a legitimateeducational reason for doing so.

“If they have the right to censor it, then I think they have theresponsibility for content,” Duffin said.

Shelley Allen, a spokesperson for the district, said after the reference tothe slur was discovered, officials launched an internal investigation into thesituation. She could not discuss specific discipline matters but acknowledgedstudents were punished.

The Chieftan adviser could not be reached for this story.