The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression is back in court again to remind the school system that they don’t have the power to curtail student speech outside of the classroom. The organization is representing a 17-year-old rising senior who was suspended by his Tennessee public high school for posting memes making fun of the principal’s dour personality.
In August of 2022, Tullahoma High School’s principal Jason Quick and assistant principal Derrick Crutchfield called the student, whose name is not mentioned, to their office and interrogated him about three memes he posted to Instagram off school grounds and outside school hours. As a consequence, Quick suspended the student based on a school policy prohibiting students from posting images on social media which “embarrass,” “discredit,” or “humiliate” another student or school staff.
As FIRE attorney Conor Fitzpatrick said, “The First Amendment bars public school employees from acting as a 24/7 board of censors.” He added that “as long as a student’s posts do not substantially disrupt school, what teens post on social media on their own time is between them and their parents, not the government.”
FIRE is representing the student in the hopes the courts will solidify their 2021 ruling in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. In that case, also filed by FIRE, the Supreme Court held that Pennsylvania’s Mahanoy Area High School violated former high school cheerleader Brandi Levy’s First Amendment rights by suspending her from the cheerleading team for voicing her frustrations with the school in a Snapchat post. In an 8-1 decision, the Court held that Levy’s comment, similarly posted while off-campus, was directed to her “private circle” of online friends. The Court affirmed that the incident did not constitute the “sort of ‘substantial disruption’ of a school activity or a threatened harm to the rights of others that might justify” disciplinary action.
By filing this suit, FIRE cements its hard-fought precedent by standing up for students’ First Amendment rights. The phrase used to be that students don’t have to “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” How far we’ve come that now we need lawsuits to remind schools that students don’t shed their First Amendment rights at home either. PT1 is very pleased to express our support for FIRE’s position in the litigation.