District response to student’s offensive tweet was justified
September 5, 2022
The following is taken from a recent Client News Brief from Lozano Smith law firm.
In Castro v. Clovis Unified School District, a United States District Court recently upheld the Clovis Unified School District’s decision to revoke a student’s privilege of “walking” during his graduation ceremony in response to the student posting a tweet depicting a classmate captioned with a racial slur. Though the student argued that the district’s actions impermissibly infringed his free speech rights, the court ruled that his offensive tweet invaded other students’ rights to be secure and left alone, therefore justifying the district’s decision.
“Plaintiff,” then a 12th-grade student, published a picture of an African American classmate on his personal Twitter account captioned with a racial slur. The offensive tweet was sent while Plaintiff was on school grounds and during school hours, just hours before the high school’s graduation ceremony. Another African American classmate confronted Plaintiff online regarding the offensive tweet, and Plaintiff retweeted the classmate’s complaint seemingly in an effort to ridicule her. The classmate reported Plaintiff’s offensive tweet to the principal, indicating that the tweets directly impacted her wellbeing. In response, the principal called Plaintiff into her office, furnished Plaintiff with his diploma, and advised him that he was prohibited from participating in the graduation ceremony. Plaintiff challenged the principal’s action, alleging it violated his free speech rights and infringed his right to procedural due process.
As a general principle, students do not forfeit their constitutional right to free speech upon reaching the schoolhouse gate. Courts, however, recognize the importance of appropriate discipline in the operation of schools and the protection of students’ right to be free of abusive or materially disruptive speech. Here, where those interests collided, the court assessed Plaintiff’s free speech claims pursuant to the school-specific framework articulated in the Supreme Court’s Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) opinion. This framework authorizes schools to lawfully restrict student speech if the speech reasonably leads school authorities to anticipate substantial disruption or material interference to school activities, or if the speech interferes with other students’ rights to be secure and left alone. Focusing its analysis on the second prong of the Tinker framework, the court considered whether Plaintiff’s tweet interfered with other students’ right to be secure and left alone. Relying on case law establishing students’ right to be free of online activity disparaging their race and to enjoy a safe and civil educational environment, the court upheld the district’s action in revoking Plaintiff’s ability to participate in the graduation ceremony.
The U.S. District Court’s ruling highlights the Tinker framework applicable to online student speech issues, particularly when considering whether the speech interfered with the rights of students to be secure and left alone. Educational agencies should consider whether student online speech was posted while on campus, as the ability to regulate student speech diminishes when the speech occurs off-campus.
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