Two male students at Lacey Township High School in New Jersey posted photos of guns on Snapchat. One of the boys captioned his photo with "hot stuff" and "if there's ever a zombie apocalypse, you know where to go."
The photos were not taken at school. They were not taken during school hours. They did not reference a school. They auto-deleted after 24 hours, which was well before the school became aware of them. And yet, administrators at Lacey Township High School suspended the boys for three days, and also gave them weekend detention.
This was a clear violation of the students' First Amendment rights, and the American Civil Liberties Union has now filed suit.
"Young people have the right to express themselves, and, with rare exceptions, they shouldn't face punishment by school administrators for it," said C.J. Griiffin, a partner at the law firm Pashman Stein Walder Hayden, who is representing the students along with the ACLU.
The two students had visited a gun range owned by an older brother on Saturday, March 10, 2018. They practiced shooting with "legally purchased and properly permitted" guns, according to the lawsuit. They also took a few photos and posted them on Snapchat. None of the snaps were threatening, and none of them referenced a school.
Nevertheless, a parent of another student heard about the photos and contacted school authorities. On Monday, the boys were forced to meet with an assistant principal and an anti-bullying specialist, who quickly decided to punish them for clearly constitutionally-protected speech.
"Sharing our completely legal weekend activities on Snapchat should not result in three days of in-school suspensions," Cody Conroy, one of the two students, told Reason in an interview. (The other student was a minor at the time and is not named in the lawsuit.)
The Supreme Court has held that public schools may not arbitrarily infringe on student's free speech rights unless the speech in question is substantively disruptive to classroom proceedings. That clearly was not the case here.
Conroy, who is now a freshman at Rutgers University, hopes the lawsuit will deter his former school district from trampling students' rights in the future.
"My school seemed to not know what it was doing," he says.
Teenagers should not lose their First Amendment rights when they set foot in school, and they certainly shouldn't be punished for exercising those rights off campus. Kudos to the ACLU—which has been a little skittish about defending speech that relates to guns in the wake of Charlottesville—for taking this case.