A California school district that suspended one student and disciplined four others over a highly offensive social media post has been sued by the disciplined students, who allege the school violated their free speech rights.
According to The Associated Press, the four high school students say the district had no right to discipline them after they liked or commented on a number of racist images posted by the now-suspended student. The images included photos of a black student and coach with nooses drawn around their necks.
The student's defenders says that because the post was made on a private account that had no connection to school activity or a school account, the school was wrong to publicly discipline them.
Alan Beck, an attorney for one of the four students, laid the case out to The Associated Press: "This to me is no different than having a private drawing book and making some offensive drawing at home and sharing them with a couple of friends," he said. "Does the school have the right to ruin my life over something I was doing at my house?"
The racist posts appeared on Instagram in March. Protests by students and parents quickly followed and the student who owned the account and posted the material is facing expulsion.
School Superintendent Valerie Williams said in a statement that the district would review the lawsuit, but would nevertheless take "appropriate action action in responding to it."
"The district takes great care to ensure that our students feel safe at school, and we are committed to providing an inclusive and respectful learning environment for all our students."
But the lawsuit claims the students only "liked" or briefly commented on the photos. The only comment confirming that any of the students in question agreed with the posts came in the form of a comment saying "yep."
The suit claims the school made the decision to bring the suspended students in front of the student body to be publicly shamed, cursed at, and jeered. At a meeting later that day, two of the suing students were injured by an angry protester. All four of the disciplined students seek remittance for unspecified damages and the removal of the suspensions from their permanent records.
Under federal law, schools have the authority to limit speech considered disruptive. That authority is broad and generally puts the power in the hands of the school districts. However, this suit may push the current debate surrounding schools punishing students for making statements off campus into the media's spotlight. With social networks, the issues become even less clear, as an off-campus statement can make it onto the school grounds quickly and become an on-campus issue.