Image Credit: FIRE.org
The Tennessee Conservative [By Adelia Kirchner] –
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) is representing a Tennessee student who is suing his public high school after receiving a suspension for posting internet memes making fun of his principal for being too serious.
Back in August 2022, Tullahoma High School’s principal and assistant principal called the 17-year-old rising senior to their office and questioned the student about three memes he had posted to a personal Instagram account.
These memes were not posted on school grounds or during school hours, and reportedly did not cause any disruption on-campus.
According to the FIRE’s press release, “The first meme shows Principal Jason Quick holding a box of vegetables with the caption, ‘My brotha.’ The second depicts Quick as an anime cat with cat ears and whiskers wearing a dress. The third shows Quick’s head superimposed on a hand-drawn cartoon character being hugged by a cartoon bird.”
Under the First Amendment, public schools are prevented from acting as round-the-clock censors and disciplinarians.
“As long as a student’s posts do not substantially disrupt school,” stated FIRE Attorney Conor Fitzpatrick, “what teens post on social media on their own time is between them and their parents, not the government.”
However, in this case Principal Jason Quick swiftly awarded the student with a three-day out-of-school suspension.
In defense of this disciplinary action, Quick and Assistant Principal Derrick Crutchfield cited a school policy which prohibits students from posting images on social media which “embarrass,” “discredit,” or humiliate” a fellow student or school staff member.
Tullahoma High also prohibits any social media activity “unbecoming of a Wildcat,” but the Constitution requires that laws regulating speech like this, actually provide the information needed for students and parents to know how to comply.
The FIRE has responded to this with a 2021 Supreme Court decision which held that if a student’s off-campus online speech does not cause disruption at school, the school cannot censor it.
Despite how it might make a school’s principal or staff feel, students do have an off-campus First Amendment right to say what they would like to say on social media.
The FIRE’s lawsuit “seeks to cement Supreme Court law that schools cannot punish students for nondisruptive, private, off-campus speech” and “to remove the suspension from the student’s record and halt enforcement of the school’s vague policies.” Tullahoma City Schools, Quick, and Crutchfield are listed as defendants.
“Principal Quick suspended a student over playful memes – but he can’t suspend the First Amendment,” said FIRE Attorney Harrison Rosenthal.
About the Author: Adelia Kirchner is a Tennessee resident and reporter for the Tennessee Conservative. Currently the host of Subtle Rampage Podcast, she has also worked for the South Dakota State Legislature and interned for Senator Bill Hagerty’s Office in Nashville, Tennessee. You can reach Adelia at firstname.lastname@example.org.