A California school district is being hit with a lawsuit after suspending four students for liking and commenting on racist Instagram posts. The students claim that the punishment violates their First Amendment and due process rights.
The Washington Post reports that the four plaintiffs are among more than a dozen students at Albany High School who were accused of liking or commenting on controversial posts that depicted female African-American classmates and the girls’ basketball coach with nooses drawn around their necks. Another image showed the girls next to pictures of apes.
The posts originally surfaced back in March after other classmates took screenshots of the images and reported them to administrators. The student who created the offensive images was suspended.
However, now the lawsuit claims that the Albany Unified School District went too far by also suspending four students who reacted to the posts. The lawsuit names the district, the school and several administrators as defendants.
“This action arises out of a private online discussion between friends that the Albany School system has pried into without authority,” the lawsuit claims. “All conduct at issue in this matter occurred off school property, were conducted off school hours, and were otherwise completely unrelated to school activity.”
Albany Unified School District Superintendent Valerie Williams released a statement Wednesday saying that the district is reviewing the case.
“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,” Williams said, as reported by the Mercury News. “The district intends to defend this commitment and its conduct within the court system.”
The lawsuit also claims that when the students returned to school, they were subject to “public shaming” because administrators allegedly forced them to walk through the school while their peers taunted them.
“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,” the lawsuit reads.
According to the Post, a parent eventually stepped in and got administrators to stop the event, which was described in a complaint as a “healing” exercise.
Later that same day, the students went to a “voluntary restorative justice session” that a community group organized. Several hundred students and parents reportedly gathered outside to protest. Eventually, as the session came to an end, the protest reportedly grew tense, prompting the plaintiffs’ parents to ask for a police escort out.
As two of the plaintiffs attempted to leave, an angry demonstrator allegedly hit both of them on the head, leaving one with a broken nose and the other with cuts and bruises, the lawsuit claims.
“Plaintiffs have all have suffered emotional distress due to these incidents, including anxiety, fear, insomnia and other distress,” the complaint read.
However, some of the students who were the subject of the racist posts reported that they were the ones who felt threatened. The uncle (and guardian) of one teenage girl who was depicted in the images told the Mercury News that the girl’s grades suffered as a result of the incident.
“Free speech is a fundamental right,” the uncle said. “But it can’t be at the expense of hurting someone.”
The students suing are demanding that the school scrub their disciplinary records, refrain from any further punishment as a result of the incident and allow them to make up for the work they missed.