Wednesday, March 29, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Students Punished Over Racist Posts File Free-Speech Suit

A group of California high school students sued their school district on Monday, claiming the punishments they received for circulating racially offensive memes on their private Instagram accounts violate their free-speech rights.

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (CN) – A group of California high school students sued their school district on Monday, claiming the punishments they received for circulating racially offensive memes on their private Instagram accounts violate their free-speech rights.

Philip Shen, Nima Kormi, Michael Bales and Kevin Chen say in a federal lawsuit against the Albany Unified School District that school administrators violated their First Amendment rights by punishing them for speech made outside school grounds, and which they contend was ultimately unrelated to school activities.

Students posting and circulating apparently racist images to their Instagram accounts that target specific female students of color has sharply divided the Bay Area community of Albany, a city of about 18,000 directly north of Berkeley.

The school district has held four community meetings in the past five months, a couple of which descended into shouting matches among angry parents, school administrators and community members.

Principal Jeff Anderson, named as a defendant in the complaint, has since been reassigned within the school district.

The incident began in early March, when administrators were told about a group of students making Nazi salutes in the hallways.

Further investigation found a couple of students had posted memes on Instagram which appeared to portray 11 female students, most of color, with nooses around their necks and with their pictures featured next to images of apes.

Some of the accused students, who have since expressed regret publicly, say the way the school reacted to the incident violated the free speech, due process and equal protection rights of the accused students.

“On the morning of March 30, 2017, the plaintiffs, excluding Chen, and the other suspended students were forced to march through the high school and were lined up in full view of all or most of the student body,” the complaint says. “School administrators allowed the student body to hurl obscenities, scream profanities, and jeer at the Plaintiffs and the other suspended students, who were all not allowed to leave what the school considered an act of ‘atonement’ but was rather a thinly veiled form of public shaming.”

Most of the students were handed five-day suspensions. Chen, however, is suspended indefinitely while administrators consider expulsion.

Chen initially posted the racially charged meme to Snapchat, where another student took a screenshot and posted to Instagram.

Chen and the other accused students were subjected to further public ridicule on the afternoon of March 30, when a crowd of people gathered outside the room in which the school was holding a “restorative justice” session, according to the complaint.

After the session concluded, Anderson firmly refused to provide security for the accused students, telling the frightened parents anxious about walking through the crowd to their cars that they were the cause of the uproar, according to the complaint.

“Although the plaintiffs, other suspended students, and parents in attendance tried to escape the building quickly, two of the students were struck in the head by an enraged demonstrator, one sustaining bruising and scrapes to his head and side of his face and the other a broken nose and other lacerations to his head and face,” the complaint says. “Several of the students and parents were forced to hide in locked vehicles to prevent further violence.”

The follow-up town hall-style meetings the district has held to allow parents and students to air their grievances have been poorly conceived and run, resulting in further harm to both the students who were the subjects of the racial images and the students who promulgated them, according to the complaint.

“Competent school employees should not be inciting unruly assemblies by authoring haphazard emails preying upon societal prejudices and hatred or that single out specific students for retribution, ostracism, or public rebuke,” the complaint says. “Competent school employees should not be lining students up in front of their peers for the purpose of humiliation and public shaming as a form of disciplinary action.”

The legal matter spelled out in the lawsuit hinges on whether a school has the right to punish students for speech made outside of school grounds and unrelated to school activities.

The attorneys for Chen and the others say such punishment amounts to a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech.

They want the court to stop the suspensions of certain students, and remove any record of the disciplinary actions from their records while allowing them to make up any work they may have missed. They also seek damages.

School district superintendent Val Williams, Albany High School assistant principal Melisa Pfohl and teacher Suzanne Young are also defendants in the lawsuit.

In a statement, Williams said the district "takes great care to ensure that our students feel safe at school, and we are committed to providing an inclusive and respectful learning environment for all of our students.

"The district intends to defend this commitment and its conduct within the court system," she added.

The students are represented by Darryl Yorkey of Berkeley.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.