Today’s court case begins with what a 16-year old boy from Pennsylvania posted on Snapchat “while at an Easter Sunday celebration with his extended family in New Jersey.” Here’s the post:
Everyone, I despise everyone! F___ you, eat s___, blackout, the world is a graveyard! All of you, I will f___ing kill off all of you! This is me, this is my, snap!
On Easter Sunday!! We can only hope that the rest of the extended family was hunting for Easter eggs while singing “He Lives!”
By now, I’m sure that Loyal Daily Dawg Readers can predict what happened next. Cops showed up at his house. The kid was arrested and charged, had his phone confiscated, was sent to juvie, subjected to a psychological exam, and, oh, by the way, expelled from school. Expelled.
Things did not go well for the school when the case went to court. The psychologist reported that the student was no threat. It turned out that what he posted were the lyrics of a song by Spite, which is yet another punk rock band that I’m pleased to have never heard of. As in the case I told you about yesterday, the school was unable to convince the court that whatever disruption occurred was attributable to the student.
The court noted that there was a major impact on the school, particularly after the superintendent notified the entire community that a threat had been made. This was based on the limited information that the superintendent had at the time. The next day, predictably, 25 % of the students did not show up, and the others were described as “anxious and upset.” None of that convinced the court that the student should be expelled. Key Quotes:
Though G.S.’s post sparked a chain of events that undoubtedly led to the disruption of normal operations at Penncrest, and resulted in communal agitation and fear, we nevertheless conclude that his post was constitutionally protected speech for which the school could not punish him.
Public schools may certainly take appropriate, good faith steps to protect their communities in fluid situations where it is unclear whether a student’s off-campus speech indicates genuinely harmful intent, as neither the First Amendment nor [a provision in the state constitution] require that they sit on their proverbial hands until a potential threat comes into actual fruition. However, where a student’s properly contextualized, off-campus speech is not distinctly connected to school activities or clearly directed towards members of their educational community, a public school’s reach exceeds its constitutional grasp if it seeks to punish that student for any disruption to normal school operations that results from that speech.
The courts always have the benefit of hindsight, which school administrators don’t have. With that perfect 20/20 hindsight, it does look like the school overreacted. But what if this student had turned out to be the next school shooter? If this Snapchat post had surfaced (and it would) the school would be blamed for not taking it seriously.
I wonder if the case would have come out differently if the school had only suspended the student for a short time to investigate. That’s the type of action taken in “fluid situations” that the court seems to be OK with. Once they had the report of the psychologist that the student posed no threat, they could have backed off on the long term discipline.
Lessons learned the hard way. This one is G.S. v. Rose Tree Media School District, decided by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania on January 7, 2022. I found it at 2022 WL 67262.
DAWG BONE: THERE WAS DISRUPTION….BUT WHOSE FAULT WAS THAT?
Got a question or comment for the Dawg? Let me hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.