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A student creates a Twitter account that contains ugly and demeaning personal comments about classmates. All this happens off campus. Thus when the school suspends the student, his lawyer claims that his First Amendment rights have been violated. While the tweets were ugly and vulgar, there was no hint of violence. The lawyer claims that there was no disruption of school, and therefore, this is not the school’s business. What do you think?
A federal court in New Jersey ruled in favor of the school in this case. What’s most interesting about the decision is how the court concluded that there was a disruption of school activities. The court noted that 1) there were complaints from parents and students about the Twitter account; 2) this required school administrators to investigate the matter, which “took them away from other school duties”; and 3) the student lied about his involvement with the account, which made the situation worse. Key Quote:
Complaints from parents and students about the HIB-speech (Harassing, Intimidating, Bullying) content of the Twitter account, and an investigation into these complaints, which was stymied by plaintiff’s intentional decision to lie about his involvement, constitute the “material and substantial disruption” to the “work and discipline of the school” requirement necessary to permit the school to discipline plaintiff for his out-of-school speech.
Keep in mind that schools can discipline students for vulgarity, but only if this occurs at school or school-sponsored activities. When the expression occurs off campus, something more is required. This case follows the recent trend, recognizing the school’s duty to prevent speech that harasses, intimidates or bullies other students.
The case is Dunkley v. Board of Education of the Greater Egg Harbor Regional High School District. It was decided by the U.S. District Court for New Jersey on October 20, 2016. We found it at 2016 WL 6134518.
DAWG BONE: ON CAMPUS: YOU CAN PROHIBIT VULGARITY. OFF CAMPUS: YOU NEED SOMETHING MORE.
File this one under: STUDENT DISCIPLINE. FIRST AMENDMENT