Teenagers

High School Can Suspend Student for Facebook Bomb Joke, Court Rules

"The medium is not the issue," says a U.S. District Court, if the message itself is "problematic."

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Central York School District/Facebook

A case decided by the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania last week highlights how confusing high-school speech regulation can be in the age of social media and school shootings. At the center of the case is 15-year-old R.L., a freshman at Central York High School in York County, Pennsylvania, whose Facebook post about an existing bomb threat at the school was itself read as a bomb threat by administrators. R.L.'s parents say that his suspension over the post was unwarranted, a violation of his right to free speech, and a violation of his due-process rights, as the school's student handbook didn't purport to apply to off-campus statements. But district Judge John E. Jones III disagreed, calling a distinction between on-campus and off-campus speech "both anachronistic and illogical." 

"The medium is not the issue," opines Jones, if the message itself "is problematic." 

The case stems from incidents that occurred in October 2013, when a bomb threat written on paper was found by a Central York student, leading to the school's temporary evacuation and an investigation by local police. At first, students and faculty were evacuated to the school stadium, until a student tweeted that "the bomb is supposedly in the stadium." The group was then shuffled to another location before eventually being sent home for the day. No bomb was found in the school or the stadium. 

After being sent home, R.L. posed to Facebook: "Plot twist, bomb isn't found and goes off tomorrow." Several hours later, he deleted the post—but not before the school superintendent had seen it. R.L. was ultimately suspended from school for a total of 23 days. 

In March 2014, R.L.'s parents, Jill and Michael Lordon, filed a complaint against the school district, the high school's assistant principal, and District Superintendent Michael Snell, alleging that they had violated R.L.'s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The Lordons claim that R.L.—who is not suspected of authoring the original bomb threat—was merely joking on Facebook, which should have been clear from his "plot twist" preamble. The aim of R.L.'s post wasn't terror, they say, merely making a comment about the day's twisted series of events. 

But R.L.'s intent is irrelevant, according to Judge Jones. What matters "is the reasonableness of the school administrators' forecast of disruption—not the student's subjective intent behind the speech."

Superintendent Snell clearly viewed R.L.'s post "as similar to the morning bomb threat," Jones writes in his decision, a view which the judge believes is reasonable. And "in the wake of the shootings at Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Virginia Tech—to name only a few notorious school shootings—it would be reckless of this Court to force school districts in our jurisdiction to hesitate, or at worst, ignore suspicious speech that threatens harm … for fear of litigation over their response," he states. 

While admitting that he "is hamstrung by the perplexing state of relevant precedent" concerning the extent to which schools can discipline students for speech, Jones finds the most relevant guidance in the 1968 case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. While Tinker does delve into the difference between on- and off-campus speech, "it would be at best a major revision of Tinker, and at worst reversible error under Tinker, for a court to decide that student speech that school administrators reasonably predicted would cause substantial disruption, but happened to technically occur off-campus, was not able to be disciplined by administrators," Jones writes. 

The relevant inquiry under Tinker, writes Jones, "is whether the speech in question could reasonably be predicted to cause substantial disruption at school without believing his speech was intended as an actual threat, based on the aforementioned fear and chaos caused by the bomb threat earlier that same day." Jones thinks it could. Accordingly, he holds that the school district did not violate R.L.'s First Amendment rights.

Nor did it violate his right to due process, as "logically, schools should be able to discipline students on account of off-campus speech they reasonably believe could cause disruption in the form of danger or violence, or fear of danger or violence, in schools," writes Jones. This is especially true considering "the modern reality of the Internet and social media networks on which students actively engage, whether they are on campus or off-campus." 

Ultimately, R.L.'s case "provides an example of the type of off-campus speech a school should be able to regulate, while at the same time underscoring the limits of Tinker's application to other kinds of off-campus speech" such as political speech, concludes Jones. 

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  2. Wow, that joke was Da Bomb!

    (strictly a joke, use of the term “bomb” is slang with a totally non-bomb-related meaning, no animals were harmed in the production of this post)

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  3. What about a Snapchat bomb joke?

    1. What about a woodchipper joke?

      1. totally new art form, here goes.

        *puts two pine 2x4s into chipper, waits till done*

        *armload of kindling, immediately followed by a hastily smashed wooden chair, waits*

        *two more 2x4s, a 16th century marionette doll, some mannequin arms, and a chess set, waits*

        *tosses mic into chipper, walks off stage*

  4. Plot twist, school administrators’ heads explode, reveal vacuum existed between ears.

    1. An implosion can be dangerous.

  5. Judge Jones writes about reasonableness so much it’s probably lost all meaning to him.

    1. That’s a reasonable conclusion.

  6. Ok, can anyone refresh my sense of hope for humanity and name a case in the last decade where the judges did NOT side with the government authority to do whatever asinine thing it did?

    1. can anyone refresh my sense of hope for humanity

      Sure, see my post below.

  7. In the good old days, back when at least some sanity still prevailed. This would have been what happened:

    Kid posts joke on Derpbook.

    School admin sees it, freaks out, calls cops.

    Cops reluctantly go visit kid’s house, ask him about post.

    Kid says it was just a joke.

    Cops concluding nothing more to see here, go on their way.

    End of story.

    We’re fucked as a society and shall now descend into madness, chaos, and totalitarianism. Sorry, that’s the most positive thing I can think of to say. I’m just putting a more positive spin on it because it’s too depressing.

    1. In the older good old days, the principal would haul the kid into his office, scold him for being a dumbass and send him off to detention, again for being a dumbass. No cops would be called because that’s for criminal matters.

      1. And those older good old days weren’t more than 20 years ago, either.

      2. Well, in the older good old days, the superintendent would have no way of finding out what the kid said outside of school and it never would have been an issue because anyone with half a brain can see it’s just a joke.

  8. I think the school admins are a bunch of moronic, humorless, pansies indulging in unnecessary CYA hyper zero tolerance BS.
    But, the court is probably right. If a kid were to make a bomb threat on Facederp, the school should be able to suspend him. I know the kid didn’t, but… I share the judge’s confusion.

    1. Maybe if the kid was arrested or jailed. Otherwise, no – absolutely not. Unless it’s a private school which doesn’t seem to be the case.

      1. Yeah, if something happens outside of school, the school shouldn’t have anything to do with it. If the kid gets arrested and charged for making an actual threat, the school might have reason to act.
        I find it really disturbing that school administrators are following what students do on their own time at all. I absolutely hate how schools seem to be trying to take on management of kids’ whole lives.

        1. It does provide a little insight into how we are raising a generation that doesn’t know how to take care of itself, though.

        2. That was my biggest unanswered question. How the hell did the superintendent even see the post? And not the principal? Or vice-principal? Or a teacher? Does the superintendent go home at night looking for jerk-off material on his students’ Derpbook pages? When a student enrolls in school, do they do a Derpbook search so they can ‘monitor’ each and every student?

    2. It’s just too clear what ‘Plot twist’ means. Too obvious, except to a bunch of statist twits.

    3. I would agree with you IF that post could reasonably be construed as an actual threat. The problem is that the judge essentially gave the school administrators infinite leeway to define what constitutes a “disruption to the school”.

  9. PROBLEMATIC

  10. what kind of stupid fucking kid growing up in today’s society doesn’t know to use yik yak for shit talk like that?

    1. This stupid kid.

  11. Nobody in this story seems to find it unusual that school administrators spend their off hours trawling social media looking for their students?

    1. It’s not during their off hours. Hell, they probably have a “social media coordinator” on staff.

      1. That’s not creepy at all.

        I guess that explains why I’ve never seen my niece or nephew on social media – I can see their parents telling them to stay far away.

    2. That is a good question. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that the cheer leading squad and the girls’ swimming and diving team are singled out for special scrutiny of their social media activity.

      People who did this sort of thing used to be called old perverts. Now they are known as school administrators.

      1. *searches Internet for open school administration positions*

      2. I think it is pretty well a given that school administrator is the dream job for OMWC acolytes everywhere

      3. I don’t think being old perverts is the problem, though (I’m sure some of them are). The problem is school administrators deciding they should be managing students’ lives outside of school.
        If they want to jack off to cheerleaders’ Facebook photos, I don’t give a shit.

        1. I don’t find being an old pervert is a problem at all.

        2. I agree Zeb. My point is that they engaging in behavior that used to be done only by perverts.

    3. If I were in charge, they would be forbidden from doing that on work time. Absolutely shouldn’t happen.

    4. Every breath you take and every move you make
      Every bond you break, every step you take, I’ll be watching you
      Every single day and every word you say
      Every game you play, every night you stay, I’ll be watching you

  12. That was a very benign joke and the judge and the school superintendent should be ashamed. The joke did sort of speak to a questioning of the competence of those guiding and conducting the search, which includes school administrators I’d assume, and I’d suspect that’s what got him in trouble.

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    1. Beginner hasn’t figured out to run it through a whats-it-called that changes key words to avoid filters.
      On the other hand, Noob’s English is very good.

  14. And what about the student that Tweeted that the bomb was in the stadium?

    1. If they’re part of the ‘protected’ class, probably nothing. Heh, these kids & their silly pranks.

  15. So I have now been unpersoned at National Review. They didn’t just kick me off, they literally deleted every comment I have ever made on the site going back years.

    I never once said anything profane or racist or doxed anyone or anything like that. My crime is torturing their readers about Trump once too often. When I pointed out the them that Libertarians are for gay marriage, ending the entire drug war and are very isolationist and therefore maybe the LP isn’t quite what they think it is, that was it. They just couldn’t take it anymore. Libertarians are apparently conservatives. I think that might be news to actual Libertarians.

    1. One of the Washington newspaper’s comments section is controlled by right wing “moderators” who happily censor any mention of libertarian ideas.

      1. I used to subscribe to NR. I have donated money to them. And now I am an unperson for the crime of kicking the hell out of their idiot readers. The people on this board can annoy me but they generally are worthy opponents. The people are NRO are embarrassing. They don’t even understand their own arguments. They are as dumb as Progs.

        1. They aren’t good at arguing because they only get fed viewpoints that agree with their own-those that don’t get slashed. The website’s not doing them any favors.

          1. NO they are not. And they are not helping their cause making it into a giant lazy echo chamber.

      2. I’m sure the NYT censor’s anything that doesn’t fit the mold, either.

        I have to imagine that any of the papers than think of themselves as “respectable” are doing something similar. Otherwise, every MSM comment section would devolve into the same sewer that YouTube is.

        1. I could see that for real vulgar or sexist or racist stuff. But kicking out anyone not towing the party lion as we say is pathetic. And its the kind of thing that the Right was once better about.

    2. Derb, is that you?

      Actually… I didn’t know they had reader comments. Haven’t been in a few years, though.

      1. As God is my witness, I did not write anything racial. I got banned for saying things like this

        As far as South Korea and Japan, should the US go to war with China to defend them? I am not sure the answer to that is automatically yes. And South Korea can defend itself. It has a huge army and would destroy the North if it ever invaded. The single brigade of 2 ID that currently sits in Korea is no longer a trip wire but more of a group of hostages at this point.
        The cold war is over. Why does the US continue to intervene in the spheres of influence of other great powers? Conservatives need to make a better case for that than “but our allies!!” question begging.

        1. God, really? Now I remember why I don’t visit there any more.

          1. Another one was when some guy said both Hillary and Trump should be in prison, I asked him why Trump. Hillary I get over the emails. But what has Trump done that deserves prison other than win the nomination?

            My God they went insane over that. Then there was this

            Jindal is asking us to accept a nominee and potential president who has a greater-than-zero chance of Making Nuclear Armageddon Great Again.

            How can anyone who would say something that stupid expect to be taken seriously? I think Bernie Sanders is a no kidding national socialist and the most loathsome candidate in my lifetime. He is a former minion of the Soviet Union and runs what amounts to a cult that is poisoning the minds of our young people. Yet, I would never claim he would start a nuclear war. None of the candidates from either of the parties would do that.

            Gereghty no longer deserves to be taken seriously if he honestly believes this. In fact, he needs to step aside and seek some clinical treatment for his obsession with Trump. If he doesn’t believe it, he needs to be ashamed of himself for poisoning the well like this.

    3. Congratulations for reaching nirvana.

    4. William Buckley would be rolling in his grave if he could see what NR has become. It’s a neocon, establishmentarian, censorious shithole. Getting banned from there is a good thing.

      1. He would be. He would not be supporting Trump, but he would be apalled by the response of his successors at his magazine to Trump.

    5. Wow. Well done, I guess.

      Despite the shit I give you, you get lots of credit for being consistent and willing to needle and piss off anyone you think needs it.

      1. Thank you. I will admit when I am wrong occasionally.

        1. Very occasionally 😉

          1. Yes. But that is more than many. But it is very occasionally.

    6. How the hell did MNG get a job at National Review as a moderator? 😉

  16. “The Facebook post is coming from inside the house!”

    “That doesn’t make any sense. It’s impossible!”

    “Look inside you Twitter account. Deep inside.”

    “NOOOOOOO!”

  17. district Judge John E. Jones III disagreed, calling a distinction between on-campus and off-campus speech “both anachronistic and illogical.”

    Well, fuck Judge John E. Jones. Seems like that reasoning could be extended to punishing students who say “fuck” outside of school (do they still punish you for swearing in school?) or use a gun or have sex.

  18. So the Internet counts as campus when we want to remind the little shits who’s boss, huh?

    Why do kids still use Facebook? I think it’s been pretty reliably shown that tight-assed school administrators love fucking with kids who step out of line on the Book of Face.

  19. RE:
    HIT & RUN BLOG
    High School Can Suspend Student for Facebook Bomb Joke, Court Rules
    “The medium is not the issue,” says a U.S. District Court, if the message itself is “problematic.”

    Translation: free speech is dead.
    Long live totalitarianism in Amerika.

  20. RL should count himself lucky (unfortunately). Some districts would have had his house raided by swat, killed his dog in the process, then found guilty on terrorism charges and sent to jail for 10-20 years.

  21. in other news, my former high school said i’m no longer allowed to eat off campus. granted i graduated nearly twenty years ago, but logically they have a right to be concerned about my diet, and why lose all that revenue just because i’m no longer enrolled?

    1. My younger brother was in his last year of highschool when they made a rule against driving an automobile during lunchhour (They had give us trouble for going home for lunch for years, but couldn’t work themselves up into making a rule against it in se, so instead whilst we could still go home for lunch we were forbid to do so by automobile.). He got expelled two months before gratutation for refusing to submit. Me, I got sick of the pointlessness and shenanigans by the tenth grade and quit wasting my time. And, for what it’s worth, I’ve never ended up needing a high school diploma for anything. For common jobs, they just need you to say “yes” to the question “did you gratutate from highschool?”. They don’t actually care if you ever did, and nobody ever arsks for proof. Other folks don’t look past college, and, though folks are rarely willing to believe this when I tell them, nobody at the university seemed to give a dam if I never completed the tenth grade. Sure, they arsked me how far I’d got in school, but when I told them they just made some notes in the file and that was that.

    2. Exception: Now that I think of it, I’ve dealt with some government employers who actually seemed to care whether applicants had completed highschool, like it’s some badge of honour to’ve had the stupidity to continue through add years of pointlessness during the height of one’s youthful exuberancy. I remember when the town was getting a new firechief. This was an absolutely vital question and they went out of their way to make sure nobody was considered unless he made reliable claims to have finished highschool. So much so they forgot to double-check having actual experience as a fire man and hired some jerk who finished highschool and had a couple years of college for some screwball degree but whose only prevous experience with fire fighting was as a fucking chaplain.

  22. I think its time for a change.

    http://www.Complete-Privacy.tk

  23. it would be reckless of this Court to force school districts in our jurisdiction to hesitate, or at worst, ignore suspicious speech that threatens harm

    But that’s not what happened. This is about punishment, not emergency action about something suspcious. By the time it came to punishment, it was evident that no harm was threatened. How does remedying unjust punishment force schools to hesitate in the face of suspicious or threatening speech?

  24. This will be appealed, and the judge smacked down.

  25. If we were a just and reasonable society the principal and the judge would both be dragged through the streets with meat hooks and then hung from lampposts before being fed to woodchippers.

  26. He got suspended for making a weak joke.

  27. awful decision. the child’s post was clearly political speech commenting on the keystone-esque response of police & school officials to what didnt appear to be a bomb threat at all (bomb threats are usually, yknow, sent to someone & not left on the ground)

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  31. “The relevant inquiry under Tinker, writes Jones, “is whether the speech in question could reasonably be predicted to cause substantial disruption at school without believing his speech was intended as an actual threat, based on the aforementioned fear and chaos caused by the bomb threat earlier that same day.” Jones thinks it could. Accordingly, he holds that the school district did not violate R.L.’s First Amendment rights.”

    Sounds like we need reasonable judges to apply such a standard. Jones seems to fail that test.

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