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Hopkinton High School in Massachusetts suspended eight students from the hockey team for their participation in a group chat on Snapchat that targeted and bullied another hockey player. The Hopkinton Hockey Eight were also suspended from school for various lengths of time, depending on the severity of their misconduct. Two of the Eight sued, alleging that the school was violating their constitutional rights of free speech. Besides being suspended from the hockey team, one of the two plaintiffs was suspended from school for three days, and the other for five.
This case gives us another look at how the courts will address social media activity by students after last year’s Supreme Court ruling in favor of Brandi, the cheerleader, who dropped four F-Bombs on Snapchat. Brandi won her case. The hockey players lost. Brandi used vulgar and disrespectful language, but she did not bully anyone. The hockey players did.
The two hockey players who sued basically argued that yes, they were part of the Snapchat group, but they were not the main instigators of all this. There were others in the group who took and disseminated unauthorized pictures and videos of the student who was targeted. These two plaintiffs did not do that. They argued that what they did was not all that bad. The court took an interesting approach to that argument, noting that:
Children often bully as a group. The children who stand on the sidewalk and cheer as one of their friends shakes down a smaller student for his lunch money may not be as culpable, but they are not entirely blameless.
The court noted last years’ Supreme Court ruling about the cheerleader, but emphasized that SCOTUS held that the school retains the power to address “serious or severe bullying or harassment targeting particular individuals.” Key Quote:
Speech or conduct that actively and pervasively encourages bullying by others or fosters an environment in which bullying is acceptable and actually occurs—as in this case—is not protected under the First Amendment.
I suspect that the school’s response to the original bullying complaint was a factor leading to its success in the subsequent litigation. Upon receipt of a complaint from the parent of the targeted student the school took swift and decisive action, including a thorough investigation that produced a nine-page report. The court began its analysis of the case by noting that “Courts generally defer to school administrators’ decisions regarding student speech so long as their judgment is reasonable.” Hopkinton High handled it well, and benefited from the court’s deference.
It’s Doe v. Hopkinton Public Schools, decided by the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals on November 19, 2021. The case is published at 19 F.4th 493.
DAWG BONE: DO A GOOD REPORT AND THE JUDGE WILL LIKELY DEFER TO YOUR JUDGMENT.
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