ACLU-NC and ALC Help Teach Free Speech Civics Lesson to Local H.S. Principal

By: Linda Lye

With the help of the ACLU of Northern California and the Asian Law Caucus, three high school seniors in San Francisco recently gave their principal a basic civics lesson: students have free speech rights, online and off.

In March, after students at a San Francisco high school posted parodies and irreverent memes from their home computers about teachers and school administrators on a Tumblr blog ("Teaches Pink Floyd for 3 Weeks; Makes Final Project Due In 3 Days"; "Nags Student Govt About Being On Task; Lags On Everything"), the principal dragged three students she suspected of creating the blog posts into her office and interrogated them at length. (The blog has since been taken down.) The principal then immediately suspended the students for three days, accusing them of bullying and disrupting school activities. The students were also barred from attending a school dance and prom, and even from walking with their classmates at graduation. In addition, the principal did not provide the students with an opportunity to resolve the concerns through a restorative justice approach prior to imposing the punishments, which disregards the School District's prioritization of restorative justice as an alternative, when possible, to suspension and expulsion.

That's when the ACLU of Northern California and the Asian Law Caucus stepped in to remind school administrators that over 40 years ago, the United States Supreme Court made clear that students don't shed their free speech rights at the schoolhouse gates. The blog posts were constitutionally protected even if they were written and posted on campus where school officials have the authority to punish speech only if it creates a "material and substantial" disruption of the school environment. Speech does not become "disruptive" just because a teacher doesn't like it or finds it offensive. In fact, criticism of authority figures is exactly the type of speech the Constitution was designed to protect.

After we contacted the San Francisco Unified School District, they took prompt action to investigate the matter and reverse the discipline. Although the students already missed three days of school, the suspensions have been removed from their records, and they'll be dancing at prom, and walking with their classmates at graduation.

If there is a civil liberties issue happening at your school, contact the ACLU's complaint line. We might be able to help!

Linda Lye is a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California.