A federal appellate court held that school officials were immune from First Amendment liability for disqualifying a high school student from running for a student government position due to a blog post.
The student took to the Internet after learning that a concert she helped plan would either have to be rescheduled or relocated due to scheduling conflicts. First she allegedly accessed another student’s father’s email account from the school computer lab and sent out a mass email from that account to the effect that the school would not allow the event to be held in its auditorium. Then she posted a blog entry from home calling school administrators “douchebags” and reprinting the email.
School officials believed that the student’s conduct was contrary to a policy requiring holders of student office to “maintain good citizenship records” and “maintain a continuous communication channel from students to both faculty and administration.” The school also had a computer policy restricting access of Internet or e-mail accounts “other than those provided by the district for school purposes.”
After the student (who was not yet 18) was forced to drop her bid for Senior Class Secretary, her mother sued on her behalf. The appellate court in Doninger v. Niehoff (.pdf via SPLC) noted that, while students have some First Amendment rights, those rights are limited so that administrators “may prohibit student expression that will materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school.” Administrators are immune from liability if “the conduct did not violate a clearly established constitutional right, or if it was objectively reasonable for the [official] to believe that his conduct did not violate such a right.”
The court held that, although the student posted the blog from home, it was not unreasonable for officials to believe that they were within their rights to discipline the student to prevent disruption. It distinguished a prior case where a school was held to have violated students’ rights by punishing them for distributing a satirical newspaper, instead relying on a case where it upheld a student’s suspension for sending instant messages with a cartoon depicting a teacher being shot in the head. The court also upheld judgment for the school officials on claims relating to their prohibition of t-shirts supporting the student.
The school may have been able to avoid the constitutional issue altogether by instead disciplining the student for the initial email, which seems to violate its computer usage policy as well as statutes and common law doctrines prohibiting the practice of “e-personating” others online.