La. student sues after being punished for Facebook status

LOUISIANA — Followinga spate of recent federal court cases involving off-campus speech, a Louisianastudent is suing his high school after he was suspended and removed from anhonors society for a comment he made on Facebook about a teacher.

The ACLU of Louisiana filed a complaint Friday in U.S.District Court against the West Baton Rouge Parish School Board, itssuperintendent and the student plaintiff’s high school principal, alleging thedistrict violated his right to public speech.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of an unnamed student andparent, claims the school district stepped outside its authority in punishingthe student for speech he made outside of school hours and on his homecomputer.

“Minor Doe,” a senior at Brusly High School, posted a Facebookstatus about his teacher at 10 p.m. on Sept. 7, according to the complaint.Settings on the post ensured it was visible only to 10 other students, thecomplaint claims.

The post reads:

“[Teacher],no one likes you. Your [sic] more two faced than the average seventh grader.You cant [sic] teach worth a shit. You relate EVERYTHING to the Holocaust andWWII. Sure it was some bad stuff. But your [sic] an American Lit teacher. Not ahistory teacher. Maybe if you straightened up that back of yours and got yourhead out of your ass, you would realize that your [sic] a piece of shit and canburn in hell for all that you have done against the senior class. Not yourstruly, The senior class of 2012.”

One of the students who saw the comment took a screenshot withhis cellphone and sent the post to the teacher in question. The teacher thenreported the comment to Principal Walter Lemoine, the complaint reads.

The student was ultimately given in-school suspension fortwo days, after the student’s mother, also a teacher in the district, asked forleniency. The student was also removed from the school’s Beta Club honorsociety.

Doe deleted the comment the following morning before school,according to the complaint.

“We conceded in the complaint … it was an insulting comment.It was crude,” said Justin Harrison, an ACLU attorney who is representing theplaintiffs. “But that’s not the issue.”

District Judge Brian Jackson denied Wednesday a temporaryrestraining order requested by the plaintiffs that would have required theschool district to refrain from sharing Doe’s disciplinary record withcolleges, afford him the opportunity to retake two exams he did poorly onfollowing his suspension and reinstate his membership in the Beta Club.

Jackson denied the request because it did not include thetext of Doe’s comment and thus failed “to demonstrate a substantial likelihoodof success on merits,” a key characteristic when deciding on injunctive relief.

ACLU attorneys filed an amended motion later Wednesday withthe Facebook post included.

Content aside, the issue at hand, Harrison said, is theschool overreaching its authority.

“I think there’s an open question of law about how far Tinker extends,” Harrison said. “But Ithink in this case that the client is outside the boundaries of schooldiscipline.”

The Supreme Court’s 1969 Tinker decision curbed thepower of schools to regulate and restrict student expression. Doe’s comment wasnot disruptive to school activities; school officials’ actions were, thecomplaint reads.

Administrators suspended Doe on the grounds that he violatedthe school’s “Improper access of the Internet” policy, which the plaintiffschallenge as a violation of the First Amendment, Harrison said.

Superintendent David Corona declined to comment on the case.

The lawsuit comes as the U.S. Supreme Court decides whetherto take any of several off-campus speech cases currently be appealed. Doningerv. Niehoff, in which a Connecticut student wrote disparagingly on her blogabout the “douchebags in the central office” of her school, is expected to bediscussed at the justices’ conference Friday. In addition, two cases involvingPennsylvania students who created fake online profiles to mock their principals— J.S. v. Blue Mountain School District and Layshock v. HermitageSchool District — are being appealed to the high court.