Category
Title Can Students Be Suspended for Comments on a Blog?
Author/s ACSI
Preview Can student postings outside of school to a social media website be grounds for punishment within the school when the postings are sexually explicit and racially motivated against classmates?
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Can Students Be Suspended for Comments on a Blog?

In December 2011, two brothers, the Wilsons—who were juniors at Lee's Summit North High School in Missouri—created a website called NorthPress:
 
NorthPress contained a blog. According to the Wilsons, the purpose of the blog was to discuss, satirize, and "vent" about events at Lee's Summit North. The Wilsons used a Dutch domain site, which prevented U.S. users from finding NorthPress via a Google search, but any U.S. user could access NorthPress if she knew the website address. The site was not password-protected.

Between Tuesday, December 13 and Friday, December 16, 2011, the Wilsons added posts to the NorthPress blog. The Wilsons' posts contained a variety of offensive and racist comments as well as sexually explicit and degrading comments about particular female classmates, whom they identified by name. The racist posts discussed fights at Lee's Summit North and mocked black students. A third student added another racist post.

NorthPress caused substantial disruption on December 16: The School District's computer records from December 16 show numerous Lee's Summit North computers were used to access or to attempt to access NorthPress. Lee's Summit North teachers testified they experienced difficulty managing their classes because students were distracted and in some cases upset by NorthPress; at least two teachers described December 16 as one of the most or the most disrupted day of their teaching careers. Lee's Summit North administrators testified that local media arrived on campus and that parents contacted the school with concerns about safety, bullying, and discrimination, both on December 16 and for some time afterwards.

According to reports by students and faculty, administrators at Lee's Summit North quickly linked the Wilsons to NorthPress: Lee's Summit North administrators immediately suspended the Wilsons for ten days and referred the matter to the School District. Following a hearing, an appeal by the Wilsons, and a second hearing, the School District suspended both Wilsons from Lee's Summit North for 180 days but allowed them to enroll in another school, Summit Ridge Academy, for the duration of their suspensions. The Wilsons filed suit against the School District and moved for a preliminary injunction to lift the suspensions."

The district court conducted a preliminary injunction hearing on March 19, 21, and 22, 2012. At the hearing, the Wilsons testified they intended the posts on NorthPress to be satirical rather than serious. The Wilsons denied they were racists.

What did the court do? You be the judge ...

S.J.W. ex rel. Wilson v. Lee's Summit R-7 School Dist. (2012) 696 F.3d 771

[The Verdict]
Can Students Be Suspended for Comments on a Blog?

The Wilsons testified that December 16, 2011, was a normal school day free from significant disruptions and suggested that the third student's post was the sole cause of any actual disruption. The Wilsons claimed that the classes at Summit Ridge Academy were not academically challenging.... The Wilsons also testified they wanted to pursue careers in music or theater, and their chances for college band scholarships would be hurt if they could not participate in the Lee's Summit North band. The Wilsons' parents testified they did not believe their sons would be in any danger at Lee's Summit North....

On March 22, 2012, the District Court granted the Wilsons' Motion for a Preliminary Injunction in an oral ruling and subsequently issued a written order to the same effect.

This ruling lifted the suspensions until a court hearing. "In its oral ruling, the District Court considered 'likelihood of success, whether plaintiffs will suffer irreparable harm if relief is denied, whether the balance of inequities tips in the plaintiffs['] favor, [and] whether injunctive relief is in the public interest.' "

The school district appealed the injunction with the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. The school district argued that the district court failed to provide sufficient evidence to support temporarily lifting the brothers' suspensions. The Wilsons argued that their posts on NorthPress were "protected free speech for which the School District could not constitutionally punish them. The Wilsons claim NorthPress did not cause significant disruption at Lee's Summit North, but maintain the third student's post was the sole cause of any actual disruption."

The Court of Appeals first determined that Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, (1969) 393 U.S. 503, does apply to blog posts. "Tinker applies to off-campus student speech where it is reasonably foreseeable that the speech will reach the school community and cause a substantial disruption." In this case, the blog posts targeted certain students at Lee's Summit North High School. The court determined that there was sufficient evidence that the NorthPress postings had caused a substantial disruption in the school when the student body learned about the posts. Therefore, the Court of Appeals maintained that the Wilsons were unlikely to succeed on the merits of their First Amendment claim and reversed the preliminary injunction that was issued by the district court.

The court also dismissed the arguments that the Wilsons would be harmed by attending another school in the district. They would still be able to graduate on time, and it was speculative that their music careers would be harmed.

What Can We Learn from This Case?
First of all, since this was a public school, students attending are accorded constitutional rights, such as free speech. However, there is an exception in cases like this, when the "speech" causes disruption to the school day. The students in this case definitely caused a disruption to the whole school for several days.

However, in private religious schools, students are not accorded the same constitutional rights. The school has the right to ask students to display certain conduct in and outside of school. To enforce this, Christian schools should have a code of conduct stating that the school expects students to live a Christlike life 24/7/365. We want students to be a testimony to Christ and for the school. In choosing to attend the school, they are expected to abide by the policies of the Christian school in and out of school.

A member school's code of conduct should include expectations for social media posts, blogs, websites, and so on. When a student agrees or has notice of the school's expectations, the school can hold the student accountable for not only what he or she says but for what is contained in social media. The school can discipline postings just as if the student had said them orally. The fact that the "speaking" is written makes little difference.  

To view the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals' opinion, visit http://www.ca8.uscourts.gov/opndir/12/10/121727P.pdf.

S.J.W. ex rel. Wilson v. Lee's Summit R-7 School Dist. (2012) 696 F.3d 771

LLU 23.3

Notice: These articles are designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. They have been provided to member schools with the understanding that ACSI is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, tax or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. Laws vary by jurisdiction and the specific application of laws to particular facts requires the advice of an attorney.

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