According to news reports, on February 11, 2020, four students filed suit against Saline Area Schools in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, arguing that the District violated free speech and equal protection laws by suspending the students for off-campus behavior.

In January 2020, school officials in eastern Michigan were notified of a series of racist SnapChat posts involving black and white high school students that occurred over the weekend. Over 25 students were involved in the online discussion, which devolved into posts involving the n-word, use of gorilla emojis, and proclamations of “WHITE POWER.” After investigating the incident, the District suspended four white students and recommended expulsion for two of them.

District administrators argue that although the speech occurred off-campus, the discussion “created harm to all of our students, especially students of color,” which warranted the discipline. The suspended students contend that the chat was banter filled with memes and jokes among friends and that the District overstepped in disciplining them for off-campus speech, thus, violating their right to free speech and equal protection rights. The students are seeking damages and expungement of their disciplinary records. We will continue to provide updates as this case develops.

Why Is This Case Important?

School officials often face the challenge of determining when they can discipline students for offensive, violent, or questionable online speech. Navigating the line between private speech and speech that impacts the school environment to such an extent that disciplinary measures may be imposed can be difficult to discern. School districts should continue to assess disciplinary incidents on a case-by-case determination pursuant to SB 100. With incidents involving off-campus speech, school administrators should determine whether the student’s continued presence poses a threat to the safety of other students, staff, and the school community or substantially disrupts and interferes with the operation of the school.  As in any case of off-campus student misconduct, you should always contact your school attorney.

Please contact any of our student/special education practice group attorneys with your questions regarding student discipline.