Massachusetts district backs off of disciplining student for profane tweet to school’s twitter

After North Attleboro High School (NAHS) sent out a message via the school’s official twitter account notifying students that school was cancelled due to snow that ended with “See you in June!,” the Boston Daily reports, senior Nick Barbieri responded with a profane tweet saying “[expletive] off.”  Barbieri’s F-word laced tweet earned him a call from school officials demanding he delete the tweet.

Barbieri obliged NAHS, but when he returned to school he was informed that he would be facing a possible suspension, or more than six hours of detention.  He was pulled out of class on three separate occasions to discuss the Tweet and his punishment.  School officials also demanded that he delete additional tweets he sent out on his twitter account discussing the ongoing disciplinary action and the school’s response.

Barbieri contacted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) via twitter, saying, “My public school tried to suspend me for a Tweet containing profanity made on the weekend.  Help me save the [First] Amendment.”  The ACLU wrote to the school asking that they delay the detentions handed down to Barbieri until they figured out the legal issues outside of the classroom.  The ACLU’s attorney, Sarah Wunsch, argued that the administration had no authority, consistent with the First Amendment, to punish Barbieri or any other student for their speech outside of the school, even if it’s about the school.  They also demanded the school apologize to the student.

Shortly after receiving the ACLU’s letter, NAHS officials reversed their decision to discipline Barbieri, wiping away the detentions.  Commenting on the outcome, Barbieri said, “Social media is a new thing, and it’s important teachers and schools have these conversations about what civil liberties and students’ rights are.  As more and more schools decide to join Twitter, it’s important they know that there are different standards and rules they will have to follow when they step into that world.”

Barbieri added,  “I can understand how they would be offended by my choice of words,” and said that he had initially apologized for the curse word.

Source: Boston Daily, 2/13/14, By Steve Annear

[Editor's Note: The ACLU's letter to NAHS cited both federal and state law in defense of the student's free speech rights. The letter asserted:

Schools officials simply do not have the authority. consistent with the First Amendment, to punish students for their speech outside of school. even if it relates to the school. Without evidence of a substantial disruption of school, not present here, the administration may not lawfully discipline a student because it does not approve of his speech.

In October 2013, Legal Clips summarized an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune reporting that Tyson Leon, who attends Shakopee High School (SHS), had filed suit in federal court against the school district and the Minnesota State High School League alleging that his suspension from sports over a tweet is endangering his chances of landing a college scholarship for wrestling. The suit asserts that the tweet was not a threat and that the suspension violates his constitutional rights.]   

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