Legal Battle Ensues After School Punishes Students for 'Liking' Racist Social Media Posts

There’s an legal battle in California over whether public schools have the authority to discipline students for what they do on social media outside of school. The uproar comes after a school punished a student for posting racist and insulting images of other students on Instagram. The lawsuit resulted when the school also punished those students who “liked” the images.

A California school district suspended a high school student after racist images that included nooses drawn around the necks of a black student and coach appeared on his social media site.

But a federal lawsuit says the district went too far when it also disciplined students who indicated they “liked” the posts on the Instagram account. The suit – filed Monday in San Francisco on behalf of four students– accuses the Albany Unified School District of violating students’ free speech rights and says the district did not have the authority to suspend the students because the offensive posts were on a private account that had no connection with any official school activity or school account.

“This to me is no different than having a private drawing book and making some offensive drawings at home and sharing them with a couple of friends,” said Alan Beck, an attorney for four students who “liked” or commented on the offensive Instagram account. “Does the school have the right to ruin my life over something I was doing at my house?”

As I wrote earlier in the week, freedom expression means someone has a right to be wrong, even offensively wrong. That’s true even in the current hysteria over bullying. If the social media posts were something indicating a direct threat to other students or the school, then some sort of discipline might be appropriate. If it was just kids giving each other a hard time outside of school, I’m not sure the school has any business intervening.

That’s not to say the kids posting or liking racist posts about classmates don’t deserve discipline. I think that is the jurisdiction of the parents though.

The lawsuit filed Monday represents four other Albany High School students – three of them Asian –, who say they were suspended after or commenting on the Instagram account or indicating they “liked” a post.

One of the students said “yep” to another comment, according to the lawsuit. Another student commented that the account “is only targeting black people.”

The other two students “liked” a few of the images posted on the account.

The lawsuit claims the district brought suspended students before the student body at a “public shaming” session during which they were cursed and jeered.

At a meeting later the same day, two suspended students were injured by an angry protester, according to the suit. The four students seek unspecified damages and a court order removing the suspensions from their records.

Schools have broad authority under federal law to limit speech at school that they consider disruptive, according to First Amendment scholars. But courts have disagreed about whether schools can punish students for off-campus speech that causes disruptions at school – a more likely scenario these days with the reach of social media –, said Aaron Caplan, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

“Public shaming” in a student assembly is completely inappropriate and provocative. Sunlight is the best disinfectant though.