Appeals court overturns ruling in case involving suspended Missouri high school bloggers

MISSOURI — A federal appeals court has reversed a ruling that allowed two high school students to return to their school after they were suspended for creating a blog about their classmates that the school said was disruptive.

Wednesday, a three-judge panel said twin brothers Steven and Sean Wilson’s case didn’t meet the standards required for granting an injunction, finding both that their First Amendment claims were unlikely to succeed and that attending the alternative high school did not constitute irreparable harm.

The Wilsons sued Lee’s Summit R-7 School District in March, claiming that the district violated the boys’ First Amendment rights when they were suspended for the controversial blog posts. They also sought the injunction that would allow their return because the alternative school did not offer honors classes or a band program.

The blog was set up last December. The brothers have admitted to using school computers to download the WordPress files needed to set up the blog, adding that they installed the files and posted to the site while off-campus.

The website, NorthPress, hosted a blog containing offensive messages about students at Lee’s Summit North High School. The posts contained racial comments directed toward black students at the school, as well as sexually explicit comments about female classmates.

The Wilsons said the blog wasn’t meant for a wide audience. Still, within a few days, the blog had been shared widely within the school. The boys were suspended in December, first for 10 days. In January, the district extended the suspension to 180 days but allowed the boys to enroll in an alternative school.

In March, District Court Judge Howard Sachs granted the boys’ injunction, finding that the lack of an honor’s program or band caused irreparable harm to the students and that reinstating the students would not damage the school district.

That decision was overturned Wednesday, when a three-judge panel found the students were not likely to succeed in their case, based on the precedent set by Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.

The judges agreed with the school district’s view that the students’ blog was disruptive. Under Tinker, “speech which actually caused a substantial disruption to the educational environment is not protected by the First Amendment.”

By Jordan Bradley, SPLC staff writer. Contact Bradley by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 124.