School Punishes Off-Campus Speech; Students Sue
A Missouri school district is being sued after a district employee punished two students for their off-campus speech. Lee's Summit R-7 School District is accused of violating the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of two honor roll students. The suit was filed in federal court by Brian and Linda Wilson, the parents of the students.
According to court documents, the district suspended the students, who are twin boys, for six months for creating a nonviolent blog. The court is being asked to dismiss the suspensions and expunge them from the boys' school records.
The blog, northpress.tk, was a satirical site that the boys created and maintained on their own computer away from school outside of school hours. According to the suit, the students went to great lengths to prevent the site from being accessed by the general population of their high school, even using a Dutch domain name to make it difficult to find through an Internet search.
The school became involved when administrators learned of the site on the same day that a reader, unbeknownst to the students, posted a racial slur in the comments section of the blog.
Although another student promptly removed the slur, the incident appears to have spurred the district's superintendent, David McGehee, to suspend the boys on the grounds that they were involved with the blog.
In their suit, the parents of the students state that the boys were offered the chance to attend an alternative school for at-risk students. However, the alternative school does not have programs capable of meeting the academic needs of honor students, according to the Wilsons. In addition, the alternative school does not have its own band and will not allow the boys to continue to maintain the leadership roles they have earned in their regular high school's band.
According to court papers, the parents fear the suspension will interfere with the students' chances of being accepted by colleges. In addition, the suit maintains that allowing the school district to punish legal speech that took place away from school will have far-reaching negative consequences. If the district's actions go unchecked, the suit alleges, “The result would be an impermissible chilling effect on speech.”