Doninger v. Niehoff

642 F.3d 334 (2d Cir. 2011)

In the Spring 2007 semester, 17-year-old Avery Doninger, upset about the school’s cancellation of an annual “battle of the bands” concert, used a school computer to send out a mass email to students and parents, encouraging them to call the school and complain about the cancellation of the event. After being confronted about the emails, Doninger made a blog post from her home computer in which she referred to some of the high school administrators as “douchebags.” When the superintendent became aware of the post, Doninger was prevented from taking a position in student government despite the fact that she won as a write-in candidate. 

Doninger sued, arguing that imposing discipline for a blog post made outside of school violated her First Amendment rights. The Federal District Court of Connecticut ruled in favor of the school on the theory that the post was “disruptive” because the administration received an “influx of calls and emails,” students were “all riled up” and Doninger gave an interview to the local media. Doninger appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, where the SPLC filed its brief.

Whether this speech should be punishable by a school at all is highly questionable; it was made off campus in the personal time of a student, and if a school can reach this speech, it sets a dangerous precedent limiting what speech will ever be beyond their reach. The SPLC’s brief argues further that the Tinker standard, if correctly and coherently applied, could never permit the imposition of discipline for asking the public to contact public officials to express an objection to the performance of public duties.

In 2011, the Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s ruling, dealing a blow to the state of student free expression rights in the Second Circuit.

Read the circuit court’s ruling