“The First Amendment Does Not Permit Schools to Prohibit Students from Engaging in the Factual, Nonthreatening

March 16, 2022   |   Tags: ,

From Starbuck v. Williamsburg James City County School Bd., decided yesterday by the Fourth Circuit (Judge Diana Gribbon Motz, joined by Chief Judge Roger Gregory and Judge James Wynn):

{Because the district court dismissed this case on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, we relate the facts as set forth in Starbuck's amended complaint.} On February 15, 2018, the day after the horrific mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Jonathan Starbuck engaged in a conversation with his classmates about the shooting. Starbuck alleges that "[n]o student within the conversation made any threat" and that the conversation was factual. Starbuck "made remarks questioning the intent of the shooter, stating that the shooter would be capable of more harm had he wanted to, noting [the shooter's] possession of explosives and considering the time the shooter was left alone within the building unchallenged by local law enforcement." A teacher overheard the conversation and reported it to the local police and school administration.

As a result, the school removed Starbuck from classes for the remainder of the school day. During that time, which Starbuck refers to as an "in-school suspension," he alleges that various school officials "interrogat[ed]" him. The "[s]chool [p]olice officer … investigated and cleared the [teacher's] report as unfounded" because the officer concluded "there was no threat made and no criminal offense … occurred."

That evening, an assistant principal informed Starbuck's parent that Starbuck faced a two-day out-of-school suspension. Starbuck maintains that concerns for his "own safety" constituted the reason given for the in-school suspension, and unspecified "[t]hreats" constituted the reason given for the out-of-school suspension. The following week, Starbuck, along with his brother and mother, attended a meeting with various school officials including the assistant principal and a representative from the School Board.

Following this meeting and after receiving a formal notice of the out-of-school suspension, Starbuck submitted a written notice of appeal to the School Board. Three months later, in May 2018, after considering Starbuck's arguments, the School Board "found the suspension was proper" stating the reason for the suspension as "[c]lassroom [d]isturbance." …

This, the Fourth Circuit said, would violate the First Amendment (again, if the facts are as alleged):

In interpreting the First Amendment, the Supreme Court has long held that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."  Student speech falls within the protection of the First Amendment unless it "materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others," or (at least as applied to on-campus speech) is "indecent," "lewd," or "vulgar," "promotes illegal drug use," or is communicated through a school-sponsored activity. Starbuck's speech does not fall within any of these categories.

According to his complaint, Starbuck only engaged in a factual conversation with his peers about a current event that is uniquely salient to the lives of American teenagers, a school shooting. Schools cannot silence such student speech on the basis that it communicates controversial or upsetting ideas. To do so would be incompatible with the very purpose of public education. Cf. W. Va. State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette (1943) ("That [boards of education] are educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source…."); Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. School Dist. (1969) (noting that "personal intercommunication among the students" is "an important part of the educational process").

The School Board relies on cases in which courts have "agreed that language reasonably perceived as threatening school violence is not constitutionally protected." We do not disagree. But Starbuck's remarks, as described in his complaint (which we must view in the light most favorable to him), were non-threatening statements about the tragedy that any student could have uttered in response to the news. For "school officials to justify prohibition of a particular expression of opinion, [they] must be able to show that [their] action was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint."

The First Amendment does not permit schools to prohibit students from engaging in the factual, nonthreatening speech alleged here….

Congratulations to University of Virginia School of Law Appellate Litigation Clinic students Jacob Larson and Benjamin Lerman, who argued the case for plaintiff and were on the briefs; to Gregory Eng, who was also on the briefs; and to Prof. Scott Ballenger, who was counsel of record.

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