Pa. high school students protest warnings to avoid ‘irresponsible’ speech

PENNSYLVANIA — About two dozen students at a suburban Pittsburgh high school staged a protest Monday after school and police officials told students they could face criminal charges if they spoke about teachers’ pending sexual assault and victim intimidation investigations.

The protesters argued the school and police officials violated students’ free-speech rights.

During a series of assemblies at the school on Friday, Plum Senior High School’s principal, the Plum Borough police chief and a school police officer told students that if they said anything about the investigations at school or online, the police might want to question them, said Riley Polacek, a sophomore at the high school.

Three Plum teachers have been arrested within the past two months. Two are charged with institutional sexual assault and the third was charged on two counts of victim intimidation.

Polacek said she thought the purpose of the assembly was to scare students into not speaking about the investigations, even though students weren’t really talking about the investigations until they were brought up in the assembly.

“I felt like the assembly could have been a lot less threatening,” Polacek said. “They had a lot of teachers walking around in circles watching us and it made you nervous even if you didn’t do anything wrong.”

In the assembly, Principal Ryan Kociela cautioned students “against tweets, posts, text, emails conversations or any other communications about any of the investigations involving our school,” according to a transcript from the assembly obtained by WPXI-TV, a local television station.

Plum Borough Chief of Police Jeff Armstrong told students at the assembly to not get involved with the investigations by making “unfounded, irresponsible, immature comments on social media.”

“When you go on social media, you’re inviting yourself into this investigation,” Armstrong said at the assembly, “you’re drawing attention to yourself and you’re asking for officers from the police department or the district attorney’s office to show up at your door and to your parents and ask you for an explanation as to why you said what you said.”

Kociela and Armstrong did not respond to phone calls requesting comment.

Jordan Townsend, one of the student protesters, told Pittsburgh Action News 4 that he didn’t think he “should be charged criminally as a person if I give my opinion to people.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania sent a letter on Friday to Kociela and Armstrong, asking that the school district and the police department release statements “clarifying that students will not be prosecuted for comments made on social media or in school about the investigation.”

“The statements at the assembly by Chief Armstrong, Principal Kociela and the school police officer that students will be criminally prosecuted for commenting on social media or in school about the pending criminal investigation were so overbroad that they are very likely to chill students from engaging in any discussion of the investigation, thus preventing them from exercising their First Amendment rights,” the ACLU letter said.

Plum Borough School District Superintendent Timothy Glasspool said in a statement that the purpose of the assembly wasn’t to infringe on the First Amendment rights of the students, but he would “urge that all individuals refrain from engaging in any irresponsible, harassing and/or intimidating communications with respect to the ongoing investigations.”

“It is not the district’s intent to prosecute or discipline any students for exercising those rights to the extent they are protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution,” said Glasspool in the statement.

Contact SPLC staff writer Mariana Viera by email or at (202) 478-1926.