CHICAGO (CN) – Six white high school girls who posted a photo on social media that some interpreted as support for the Ku Klux Klan sued their school district for defamation after school officials opened an investigation into the matter.
A Snapchat photo of a group of white teenage girls sparked outrage last month when people interpreted it as a show of support for the white supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan.
The Barrington High School girls each wore a white shirt and some raised their hands to form triangles above their heads – which some people saw as an attempt to mime Klan hoods. The caption for the photo read “KKK.”
Barrington High School in the Chicago suburb of Barrington is 68 percent white, 16 percent Hispanic, 11 percent Asian, 3 percent multiracial and 2 percent black, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Parents of six of the girls shown in the photo sued Barrington School District Superintendent Brian Harris and Principal Steven McWilliams on Monday in Chicago federal court for disciplining the girls over the photo.
They claim the photo had no racist message whatsoever.
“Other BHS students saw a group photograph from a private, non-school-related party, mistook the initials of Kiara ‘Keisha’ Kelly as alignment with the Ku Klux Klan, and made it their summer project to instigate a virtual internet mob to threaten and pressure District 220 to involve itself and mete out punishment for the thought crime they imagined had occurred,” the parents claim.
The photo was taken at a “white out”-themed party, which allegedly referred solely to clothing and was attended by students of all races. The school has hosted similar “white-out” events, according to the complaint.
The parents claim Superintendent Harris and Principal McWilliams “cravenly” pandered to those who accused their daughters of racism, even after interviewing the girls and finding no support for the allegations.
Principal McWilliams told the Chicago Tribune that the image “burns me to my core,” and Superintendent Harris sent a message to the entire district saying that “in no way does [the photo] represent the values of Barrington 220.”
The girls are currently barred from extracurricular activities pending further investigation once the school year begins on Aug. 21.
But “even if the internet mob’s imaginations had been correct,” the parents say, the photo “is patently protected free speech that District 220 may not punish.”
The girls’ “exercise of their right to free speech via the photo did not occur at a school event, was not about school, and was not, in any way, aimed at the school,” the complaint states.
Their parents seek damages for defamation and an injunction barring any further punishment based on the photo.
They are represented by Thomas A. Lidbury with Benesch, Friedlander, Coplan & Aronoff.
Superintendent Harris declined to comment on the matter “out of respect for the confidentiality of BHS students.”