New Jersey student disciplined for vulgar off-campus tweet about principal sues district

A student is suing the Sterling High School District (SHSD) after she was disciplined for a vulgar off-campus tweet about her principal, says the New Jersey Law Journal.  H.W., who suffers from “oppositional defiant disorder”, was banned from the prom, the senior trip, and commencement.

According to the legal complaint, H.W. calling the principal a “pussy ass bitch” was a consequence of her psychological disorder, which causes her to have “dramatic mood swings” and “difficulty with authority.”  The suit also claim her comment is protected speech under the First Amendment because it was made off campus and outside school hours and did not disrupt school activities.  

In addition, the suit asserts another of her tweets, which invited classmates to  “smoke with me before school tomorrow,” is  likewise clothed in First Amendment protection and, thus, outside of the school’s authority.  SHS officials viewed the invitation as referring to marijuana and ordered H.W. to submit to a drug test, which she is seeking to have the court enjoin. 

The suit claims disability discrimination under New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (LAD) and violation of H.W.’s free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.  In addition to the LAD and free speech claims, the suit charges officials exceeded their authority under state law by disciplining H.W. for out-of-school conduct that did not interfere with school operations.  In support of the free speech claims, H.W.’s legal complaint cites two U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit decisions: J.S. v. Blue Mountain School District, 650 F.3d 915 (2011) and Laycock v. Hermitage School District, 650 F.3d 205 (2011).

The suit is asking for an injunction against the school barring her from school activities, an expungment of documents related to the episode, a revision of school policies that she says permitted intrusion on her rights, and damages, legal fees and costs.

Source: New Jersey Law Journal, 3/18/14, By Charles Toutant

[Editor’s Note: In order to view the New Jersey Law Journal article, you must subscribe to its free online service.  If you would like to read a somewhat less informative news article about the suit, you make access the story from NJ.com

In February, 2014, Legal Clips followed a story about a Massachusetts school district that backed off disciplining a student for his profane tweet to the school’s twitter account.

In July, 2013, Legal Clips reported that a Nevada school district’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed against it by a student disciplined for an off-campus tweet was denied.

In January 2012, Legal Clips summarized articles from several 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.  NSBA, along with other education groups, had filed an amicus brief in J.S./Layshock urging the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Third Circuit’s decisions in those two cases, as explained in this November 2011 Sua Sponte post in Legal Clips.]

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