Student Free Speech Issues – Update

The fall, 2006 issue of the MB&M Education News addressed student free speech rights for off-campus conduct.  In general, students retain freedom of speech unless such speech substantially disrupts the educational process.  Since that writing, there have been recent developments.  The 2006 article discussed the Latour case, in which a Riverside Beaver County student was expelled for posting rap lyrics on the internet which referred to another student.  The student filed a federal action seeking to set aside the expulsion.  He had also been subjected to arrest and juvenile detention by the local police and so he sought damages against the District and the police.  The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported on December 29, 2006 that the various police departments agreed to settle with the student and his family in exchange for $60,000.00, while the School District previously agreed to settle for $90,000.00.

On December 20, 2006 local news media also reported a lawsuit filed by a former student of New Brighton Area High School who had been suspended out-of-school for ten days and forbidden to attend his senior prom following a remark that he made on school property.  During a school assembly that involved the Harlem Globetrotters, the student was chosen to participate in the presentation.  One of the Globetrotters gave the student the nickname “Osama,” presumably because the student is part Lebanese and had a goatee.  The Globetrotter called the student by that name several times during the assembly, and the nickname was used by other students and a teacher on subsequent school days.  At one point, according to news accounts, the student became tired of the remark and stated to a friend “If I were Osama, I would already have pulled a Columbine.”  A Librarian overheard this and relayed it to the Principal, who issued a ten day suspension and loss of privileges for terroristic threats.  The ACLU filed a lawsuit on the student’s behalf alleging abridgement of free speech rights, arguing that the remark did not constitute a true threat or otherwise disrupt the school environment.

Regardless of the merits of the free speech claims in these court actions, they illustrate that student speech issues will continue to be a front-burner concern for many districts.  To that end, if your district is required to address student speech, and you are contemplating significant disciplinary consequences such as a lengthy suspension, expulsion or other loss of school privileges, the safest course is to consult with your Solicitor to determine how your situation compares with others, and to err on the side of caution.

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