Students sue Missouri district after discipline based on off-campus blog

Brian and Linda Wilson, the parents of the twin honor roll students, have filed a federal lawsuit against Lee’s Summit R-7 School District (LSR-7SD), says Courthouse News Service, alleging the school district violated their sons’ First and Fourteenth Amendment when it suspended them for 180 days for setting up and running a nonviolent website on their own time and on their own computers. The suit asks a federal court to reinstate the students and remove the suspension from their permanent records.

At issue is a blog one of the boys created called northpress.tk, a satirical site about high school life. The boys say they set up the blog on their personal computer on their own time, and used a Dutch domain name so it would be difficult for peers to see it unless they told them about it. One evening, another student posted a comment using a racial epithet of which the twins were not aware at the time. The next morning, a third student removed the content.

The same day, the Lee’s Summit North High School (LSNHS ) administration became aware of the website and restricted access to it from all school computers. The twins were suspended for 180 days. They contend LSR-7SD Superintendent David McGehee told them they were suspended because they were “involved with” North Press.

The twins claim they were told that while suspended they could attend Summit Ridge Academy, an alternative school for at-risk students. But the twins, honor students, say the alternative school does not meet their academic needs and doesn’t have any extracurricular activities, such as a band. One twin is a drum major and the other was slated to be Drum Line Captain in the Lee’s Summit North High School band next year, positions put in jeopardy by the suspension. According to the suit,  “Unless the plaintiffs are immediately readmitted to LSNHS, they will lose eligibility to participate in leadership roles in school band.”

The suit charges that the suspension and its appearance in their permanent records jeopardize their chances for a college education. It also sates that if LSR-7SD’s actions are allowed to stand, “the result would be an impermissible chilling effect on speech.”

Source: Courthouse News Service, 3/9/12, By Joe Harris

[Editor's Note: The Wilsons' legal complaint alleges violations of the students' rights under the U.S. Constitution to: (1) free speech; (2) free association; (3) substantive due process; (4) procedural due process; and (5) privacy.

In March 2012, Legal Clips summarized an article in the Morris Sun Tribune reporting that the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota (ACLU-MN) had filed suit against Minnewaska Area School District (MASD) and the Pope County Sheriff’s Office alleging that they violated a student’s free speech and privacy rights in two instances related to Facebook.

In January 2012, Legal Clips summarized a number of articles from national media outlets reporting on the Supreme Court’s denial of certiorari in three student Internet speech cases, J.S. v. Blue Mountain Sch. Dist. (combined with Layshock v. Hermitage Sch. Dist.) and Kowalksi v. Berkeley Count Sch.  In each of these cases, a student had used offensive language online, after school hours, to berate school administrators or a fellow student.  School officials disciplined the student for the behavior, drawing a suit based on First Amendment free speech protection.]

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