A Michigan high school junior and his parents are suing educators for banning the student from expressing religious views on his private social media accounts, or in school without a teacher present to “monitor and guide” the conversation.
The restrictions appear to run contrary to at least two Supreme Court decisions protecting students’ free speech rights on- and off-campus. A 1969 ruling, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, held students cannot be punished for on-campus speech unless it “materially and substantially” disrupted the school day or infringed on the rights of others.
Last September, in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., the high court upheld a high school cheerleader’s right to off-campus online speech even if the message — in this case, a vulgar Snapchat selfie — was critical of their high school and its cheer program.
Yet David Stout, a junior at Plainwell High School in Plainwell, Michigan, 37 miles south of Grand Rapids, was suspended for three days last fall for stating his Christian beliefs in a private text exchange and in a hallway conversation at school, his attorneys claim. He also was admonished about religious expressions online and at school.
The school also disciplined the student because of offensive behavior at a homecoming football game last October his lawyer said Mr. Stout did not participate in and was not aware of because he was changing from his football gear to play in the band during halftime.
The school also allegedly cited Mr. Stout for not reporting homophobic jokes another student told during a band camp the previous summer, and for the private text message he sent another student affirming Mr. Stout’s belief in the Christian view of marriage and sexuality.
The other student allegedly was “uncomfortable” with that text message and shared it with school officials.
“They had no reason to discipline him at all for anything he did,” attorney David Kallman of the Great Lakes Justice Center in Lansing, Michigan, said in a telephone interview. “Free speech has its limitations, of course, but none of those apply here.”
The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court’s Western District of Michigan Southern Division, names Plainwell Community Schools, principal Jeremy Wright, assistant principal Deb Beals, and band directors David Hepinstall and Austin Hunt.
The action seeks reversal of Mr. Stout’s disciplinary action in his school record, as well as unspecified damages and attorney’s fees.
Matt Montange, superintendent of Plainwell Community Schools, told The Washington Times he could not comment on the pending litigation or explain the high school’s authority for making the demands it allegedly did concerning Mr. Stout’s online activity or in-school conversations.
Mr. Kallman said his client, the high school student in the case, felt as a person of faith and as a conservative, that school officials were “punishing him for his views.”
“That’s the way he felt, and that’s why he felt it was he needed to stand up and do something about it.”
• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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