Students rights are limited on school grounds. But they don’t cease to exist. And what they do off-campus is subject to even fewer limitations.
These are long-held facts backed by years of court precedent, the most famous of which is the Supreme Court’s 1969 Tinker decision. This is the baseline for school-student interactions when it comes to constitutional rights, as written by Justice Abe Fortas:
It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.
And yet, there are still plenty of school administrators who feel otherwise. When they act on their ignorance, they get sued. That’s what’s happening in a Tennessee federal court right now. A student suspended for mocking his principal via his personal social media accounts has obtained the backing of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) and is suing the offended party, as well as the entity that employs him.
A Tennessee student is suing his school district after he was suspended for posting memes making fun of his principal.
The 17-year-old student shared three memes that he made and published online with the principal’s face cut out on different backgrounds.
One meme showed the principal as a cat in a french maid’s outfit. The stunt resulted in a three-day, out-of-school suspension for the student.
That summary comes courtesy of UK news agency, The Guardian. Somehow, domestic coverage by large news agencies like NBC did not apparently include any link to the actual lawsuit, so it’s the UK getting our clicks for its coverage of non-domestic litigation.
The complaint [PDF] helpfully includes the social media posts the school felt necessitated a suspension. Not only do they show the mockery was harmless, it also allows those of us covering this lawsuit to further this extremely mild ridicule of an apparently humorless school administrator.
Plaintiff I.P. posted three images about his Tullahoma High School principal, Defendant Jason Quick. One showed Quick holding a box of vegetables, another (which I.P. merely reposted) showed Quick in a dress with cat ears and whiskers, and the third showed Quick’s face on a video game character being hugged by a cartoon bird. I.P. intended the images to satirize, in I.P.’s view, Quick’s overly serious demeanor. I.P. posted each image from his own device, off campus, and on his own time.
For that, the student was suspended. Not only did it prove his point (that principal Quick is “overly serious,”), it generated a constitutional cause of action that’s going to be extremely difficult to defend in federal court.
The baseline for constitutionality is whether or not a student’s actions “substantially disrupt” the everyday business of educating. There’s nothing on the record that suggests anything other than Principal Quick’s ego was (briefly) disrupted. The school (or, as personified by Quick) cannot forbid students from satirizing educators or administrators — not if there’s no resulting disruption.
And the school can’t get around these restrictions just by crafting unconstitutional policies.
To suspend I.P., Quick relied on a Tullahoma High School policy prohibiting students, whether at home or school, from posting pictures that “result in the embarrassment, demeaning, or discrediting of any student or staff,” regardless of whether the pictures substantially disrupt the school day. That policy is squarely unconstitutional under Mahanoy, and so is I.P.’s suspension.
That last sentence references the US Supreme Court’s 2021 decision finding that a school can’t suspend (or boot from the cheerleading squad) a student who said nothing more than “fuck cheer” in a personal social media post. And the long string of f-bombs delivered in that case are far more facially offensive than these innocuous memes the principal felt deserved to be met with a suspension.
A school simply cannot forbid criticism of its employees. That this school thought it could — and that it could use this policy to suspend someone — is likely going to see it lose this lawsuit, along with this policy, in the near future.
And it’s not even a close case in terms of physical location. The first meme was posted while the student was visiting his father in Alabama two days after the school year ended. (It’s ~40 miles from Tullahoma High School to the Alabama border.) The next post appeared nearly three weeks later, posted by I.P. while vacationing with his family in Italy. Only the last posting occurred either during a school year or in the vicinity of physical school building. I.P. posted the last one from his home, following his second day of his junior year.
Given the time and distance of the first two posts, it’s incredibly unlikely posts sent during summer vacation from distant vacation spots caused any disruption at all at the (closed) school. And there doesn’t appear to be any indication the last posting caused any problems either, despite it actually happening during the school year.
In fact, the school appeared to be so un-disrupted it took administrators eight days after I.P.’s final post to drag him into the office and suspend him. Upon being told he was being suspended, I.P. suffered a panic attack in the school office — something I.P. asserts administrators should have known would be the likely effect of this unexpected disciplinary action since the school had already instituted a “504 Plan” to accommodate I.P.’s clinically diagnosed depression and anxiety.
So, there are physical and mental injuries on top of the constitutional injuries. And, unless the school has a bunch of disruption related evidence up its sleeve, it’s going to find itself on the hook for what looks entirely like an unamused principal finding a way to punish a student for mocking him. That’s not how the law works and no amount of unlawful school policies can excuse what happened here.