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Partial Court Ruling Upholds Punishment of Albany High Students in California First Amendment Case

The line that divides free speech from school speech is one that often gets blurred. In an age where multitudes of information is available at the touch of a finger, the situation becomes even more complex. When a student creates an Instagram account that is rife with racist statements and images of classmates, are his efforts protected by the First Amendment?

zero-tolerance-at-schoolOne student at Albany High school in Albany, California created such an Instagram account in November 2016. He invited a handful of friends to access the derogatory pictures that he had taken of other students, most of whom were African-American girls. Along with his friends, he made racist comments. Some of his friends “liked” the images.

The Instagram feed was discovered in March 2017. The students who had been targeted by the account were threatened with violence in many of the posts. When school officials reviewed the account, punishments were swift. The account’s creator was expelled in June. Other students received suspensions. An anti-racism rally was held on the day that the suspended students returned. Concurrently, another faction of students decided it was time for a session of “restorative justice.” The suspended students were essentially forced to walk a gauntlet of screaming, angry students, some of whom became violent. One of the students who was returning to school after being suspended had his nose broken in the incident.

The students who were punished for their involvement filed a lawsuit that named the school district, several officials, employees at the school and board members as defendants. Recently, Judge James Donato issued a ruling on part of that lawsuit. He agreed with the defendants’ assertions that the punishments had been reasonable as they were levied by the district in the case of most of the students. However, he ruled that other students who had not targeted specific students with their posts were too harshly punished.

Other claims must be decided in this complex case. When it comes to questions of free speech, it is always best to stay on the side of caution, especially when schools or the workplace are involved.