PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) – A boy who was suspended for calling his eighth-grade teacher “a bitch” who “needs to be shot” on his Facebook page will get attorney fees and a clear school record, a federal judge ruled.
Braeden Burge was an eighth-grader at Colton Middle School when his health teacher, Veronica Bouck, gave him a C, and Braeden’s mother grounded him.
Braeden took to Facebook to express his frustration.
“I wanna start a petition to get mrs. [sic] Bouck fired, she’s the worst teacher ever,” Braeden wrote on Facebook.
When a friend asked what Bouck had done, Braeden replied “she’s just a bitch haha” and added “Ya haha she needs to be shot.”
“I just noticed that every time I’ve been grounded in middle school it’s because of Mrs. Bouck. I wish she would just get fired haha but I doubt that’ll ever happen,” Braeden added.
After seeing the comments about Bouck on Facebook, Braeden’s mother asked him to delete them, which he did within 24 hours of posting them.
More than a month later, a parent of a Colton Middle School student printed out an image of Braeden’s Facebook comments and put it in the principal’s mailbox.
Principal Kara Powell met with Braeden and told him he had violated two school policies against violent threats and harassing staff, then suspended him for three and a half school days, according to the lawsuit.
Braeden’s and his mother, Kelly Burge, sued Colton School District 53, alleging First and Fourteenth Amendment violations.
The Burges said it wasn’t fair to suspend Braeden for comments he made on Facebook “from the privacy of his own home, outside of school hours, and while not participating in a school-sponsored activity.”
Magistrate Judge Janice Stewart found that the suspension violated Braeden’s free-speech rights because his Facebook posts were not “true threats” under the First Amendment.
There was no proof that Braeden subjectively intended his comments as a threat of intimidation or actual violence, Stewart wrote.
Braeden didn’t think Bouck would see the comments because she wasn’t his friend on Facebook, and his page was set to show his comments only to friends, Stewart wrote.
“He intended only to express his dissatisfaction with his grade and elicit a response from his friends and not to even communicate with Bouck,” Stewart wrote.
“Braeden’s comments, while crude, were meant and understood by his audience as a critique of Bouck’s teaching skills and not the serious expression of intent to harm her,” Stewart added.
And Powell’s reaction shows that she did not deem the comments to be credible threats of violence, Stewart wrote.
Powell suspended Braeden for a mere three and a half days, and “did not investigate whether Braeden had access to guns or a history of violence, contact the police or a mental-health professional, or even remove Braeden from Bouck’s classroom,” Stewart pointed out.
Furthermore, although Bouck claimed she was “scared,” “nervous” and “upset” because of Braeden’s Facebook comments, she did not miss any work because of the incident and accepted the school’s decision to have him return to her classroom after his suspension.
Judge Michael Mosman adopted Stewart’s findings and recommendations, calling the case “a tightrope” where a school district had to balance school safety with Braeden’s constitutional rights.
Ultimately, however, he agreed that it was unlikely a reasonable juror would have found Braeden to be a threat to school safety or that the district had even viewed him as such.Mosman ordered the district to remove the suspension from Braeden’s school record, and awarded Braeden $66,000 in attorney fees and costs.
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