Last year, a Tennessee high school suspended a junior for three days as punishment for a series of playful Instagram posts lampooning the principal. According to a new lawsuit, that suspension was unconstitutional.
Referred to in the lawsuit as I.P., the student, who attends Tullahoma High School in Tullahoma, Tennessee, made several Instagram posts while off campus. The posts were humorous depictions of Jason Quick, the school's principal. The photos, according to the student, were intended to lampoon Quick's reputation as a strict and humorless administrator. For example, In one post, a photo of Quick holding a box of produce has the text "my brotha" added to it. In another, Quick's face is placed over a picture of an anime cat.
The posts didn't disrupt school, but Quick ordered the student to receive a five-day suspension. The punishment was later downgraded to a three-day suspension when I.P. suffered a severe panic attack after being informed of the five-day suspension. School officials justified the suspension by claiming that the student had violated school policies barring students from posting pictures that "result in the embarrassment, demeaning, or discrediting of any student or staff" and are "unbecoming of a Wildcat."
According to the lawsuit, the school maintained I.P.'s punishment even when given a legal letter informing them that they were violating his First Amendment Rights under Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. The 2021 Supreme Court decision held that public schools cannot punish students for non-disruptive off-campus expression.
On Wednesday, I.P. filed a lawsuit with the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a First Amendment nonprofit. The suit challenges the school's social media policies as unconstitutionally vague and argues that school administrators had no legal right to suspend him for his off-campus Instagram posts.
"I.P.'s posts are protected First Amendment expression because they satirized a government official and did not create material disruption, cause substantial disorder, or invade the rights of others at school. The posts likewise did not cause Defendants to reasonably forecast such a disruption," reads the 48-page complaint. "There is no legitimate, let alone compelling, state interest in prohibiting students from engaging in non-disruptive speech about school staff or other students outside school hours and away from school property.
While stuffy administrators might not like it, public schools don't get to act as around-the-clock censors of students' speech. Once students are off school grounds, their public schools have no right to punish them for expression that doesn't cause a substantial disruption at school—even if they find that expression offensive or embarrassing.