The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

High School Student Allegedly Suspended for Saying "Illegal Alien" in Class Discussion


The New York Post (Yaron Steinbuch) reports:

A 16-year-old North Carolina high school student says he was suspended just for saying "illegal alien" while discussing word meaning in English class — possibly ruining his chances of landing a college sports scholarship.

Christian McGhee, a student at Central Davidson High School in Lexington, received a three-day suspension last week after he used the term in English class, the Carolina Journal reported.

His mother, Leah McGhee, said his teacher had given an assignment that used the word "alien," and Christian asked: "Like space aliens or illegal aliens without green cards?"

Another student reportedly took offense and threatened to fight Christian, so the teacher took the matter to the assistant principal, according to the Carolina Journal….

The Carolina Journal (Briana Kraemer) reports:

According to an email describing the incident, sent to local officials and shared with Carolina Journal, a young man in class took offense to his question and reportedly threatened to fight him, prompting the teacher to call in the assistant principal. Ultimately, his words were deemed by administrative staff to be offensive and disrespectful to classmates who are Hispanic.

"I didn't make a statement directed towards anyone; I asked a question," said the student in response to his suspension. "I wasn't speaking of Hispanics because everyone from other countries needs green cards, and the term "illegal alien" is an actual term that I hear on the news and can find in the dictionary." …

Hans Bader (Liberty Unyielding) has more. If the facts are as described in the press coverage, this would likely be a violation of the First Amendment; and even apart from the First Amendment, it strikes me as an improper attempt to enforce a particular ideological orthodoxy.

Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Comm. School Dist. (1969), does allow speech to be restricted when it "materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others," and this has in effect been read to allow a "heckler's veto" when enough people threaten the speaker. But I doubt that one such threat should qualify (especially as a basis for a suspension), or else virtually any kind of controversial statement on any topic—abortion, war, affirmative action, the police, or a vast range of other topics—could be punished simply because one person sufficiently dislikes it. (After all, if speech can be punished because someone threatens to fight someone over the official legal term "illegal alien," it could equally be punished whenever someone threats to fight someone over a substantive policy position, e.g., "immigration law should be enforced, by deporting people who are not legally allowed to be in the country.")