Four California Students Sue After Being Suspended For “Liking” Postings on Instragram

225px-Instagram_logoThere is an important lawsuit that has been filed in California after four high school students were suspended for simply “liking” Instagram posts deemed racist.  The lawsuit could force reconsideration of the erosion of free speech rights for students, including the widening scope of discipline for student speech outside of schools.  School officials now believe that they have full license to punish students if their personal views outside of school do not conform with accepted values. This case did have troubling aspects that raised legitimate concerns (though these students were not the author of the posting).  The question is one of authority to regulate speech outside of schools if they do not involve criminal threats.

I have previously written about the increasing monitoring and discipline of teachers for conduct in their private lives. We have seen teachers face discipline over social media pictures holding a weapon. Even a picture of a teacher holding a glass of a drink is enough to trigger discipline. We have seen a steady erosion of the free speech rights of students in the last decade. The Supreme Court accelerated that trend in its Morse decision. Former JDHS Principal Deb Morse suspended a student in 2002 during the Olympic Torch Relay for holding up a 14-foot banner across from the high school that read “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.” The case ultimately led to the Supreme Court which ruled in Morse v. Frederick ruling in 2007 for the Board — a decision that I strongly disagreed with and one that has encouraged over-reaching by school officials into protected areas.  Even  cheerleaders are expected to conform their free speech to accept positions or risk removal from their teams.

In this case, the students — three of whom are Asian — were suspended after school officials at Albany High School in the San Francisco Bay Area learned that they “liked” or briefly commented on Instagram posts that included disturbing images.  There are different accounts of what the images showed.  One image reportedly showed  an image of a black doll juxtaposed with a KKK member, a torch and a noose.  Other images included photographs of specific students at the school. The posting also included jokes about students’ weight and looks.  The school insisted that it was merely trying to provide “an inclusive and respectful learning environment for all of our students.”  Those are disgusting images and I agree with the school’s concern.  However, there remains the question of the rights of students to express their views in their private lives.  Students have a right to hold obnoxious views.  I do not know if these students are racist or the specific images involved, but, even if they were racists, there would still be the question of why school officials are policing and punishing viewpoints out of school.

These were private accounts of the students unconnected to the school.  Moreover, the lawsuit alleges that the school ordered an “atonement” exercise held after the return of the suspended students.  This included 15 students including the four plaintiffs who were allegedly  “lined up in full view” of the student body and “screamed at.”  Two of the students were allegedly assaulted on their way out of the exercise.

I do not question the motivations in this case. I do think that it is a serious matter any student or staff member is shown with a noose or threatening image, as some accounts allege.  I can understand calling the students into the school to raise the matter with them and their parents.  I can also understand an investigation into the existence of any threat to a staff member or student.  However, I am still uncomfortable with the notion that school officials are now authorized to regulate and punish speech outside of school.  If there is not a criminal threat, I fail to see the basis for that authority.

I also have serious concerns over the atonement exercise if the allegations are true. I cannot imagine a more dangerous practice if school officials isolated students to some “atonement exercise” before the whole student body.

In the end, I tend to resolve such questions along free speech lines.  This is no frivolous lawsuit, though I worry that courts will further erode free speech by blindly yielding to the expanding scope of authority of school officials over private speech of students.


What do you think?

107 thoughts on “Four California Students Sue After Being Suspended For “Liking” Postings on Instragram”

  1. I appreciate what I feel is your well-reasoned view on infringements to the First Amendment. Free Speech makes no sense in a morally or mentally fanatical state. People should be allowed to err, especially if it’s conceptually rather than criminally (in action) — although this distinction still needs some firming up. Further, there’s a tedency in American law to stretch some judgments (legal decisions) to unwarranted extremes.

    Thanks for your well-expressed take. .

  2. The news last night included two men fighting on a plane and another plane incident about giving up a seat. Later I read that American Airlines was going to take inches away, various locations and size. We have become a selfish, violent society. George Will can’t keep his mouth shut about Trump. People gather for hours with signs protesting Trump at USS Intrepid dinner. I don’t think he even saw them. Are lives so boring protesting is how you spend your time. Our schools are so screwed up. Why are they looking at Instragam, Facebook? Their words should be private. Obama’s eight years made the divide worse, not better. We are so obsessed by race we see racism in everything. Needless to say I’m tired of Trump bashing. Hillary is still whining about her loss. Mr. Trump is our President, at least until January 20, 2021.

  3. The link to the picture is not working, jsut FYI, but I suspect from the description it is the pic most shown in the news here, in fact the only one I recall. A lot of emphasis on 4 students, none of whom posted, from what I gather, the images. Other shots do make use of actual students and one black father whose daughter’s image is used has talked to the press.

    A lot of racial tension for years over in East Bay HS (and, I assume, other areas, it is just EB issues often get coverage) As long as they can, they like to let it be assumed it is white on black racism. Increasingly it is non white vs non white. Gang or other. Sometimes, in one horrific incident (crime, sexual assault on a 9 year old from a MOTHER) it is immigrant issues, in the assault, Somali on Somali. Just lovely. On school grounds, in the bathrooms…

    Interesting it got out 3 of the 4 are Asian. From overall shots of students at the school it was clear it is heavily Asian.

    Be interesting to see where this case goes…

  4. I’m of the same opinion as Mr. Turley.

    Back in the ’50s and ’60s, Albany was a fairly exclusive and quiet little upper-middle-class city to the north and adjacent to Berkeley. It had lots of small single-family craftsman homes for rent there. My dad lived there for a while. Now, I’d guess it’s completely out of reach financially for most renters, let alone buyers, despite not appearing like anything more than a very clean, mom-and-pop town.

    If this heads to the Supreme Court, which I doubt because the cost to the school district would be enormous just getting there, the only good thing good coming from it will be to show starched-shorts social conservatives posting on this blog site how impetuous J. Neil Gorsuch is when it comes to trampling free speech.

    All I can say is, “Power hits for Jesus.”

    1. If this heads to the Supreme Court, which I doubt because the cost to the school district would be enormous just getting there, the only good thing good coming from it will be to show starched-shorts social conservatives posting on this blog site how impetuous J. Neil Gorsuch is when it comes to trampling free speech.

      You never quit with the bad arguments in the service of sectarian warfare, do you?

      1. You think Gorsuch will allow school kids to get away with being unruly with their speech? I think he’ll be more totalitarian than Albany High is. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

        1. Do I think Gorsuch is going to allow school officials to seize general police powers? No.

    2. I can not seem to make any sense out of your comment. While that is a not-uncommon characteristic with comments, this time you seem to have reached new heights in incomprehensibleness. Could you please translate your comment to something understandable, sooo that I can give it the knowledgeable lack of respect I am sure it truly deserves???

      Thank You!!!

      Squeeky Fromm
      Girl Reporter

      1. You’re assuming he’s arguing in good faith. He’s throwing chaff in your face.

    3. I might share Steve your belief that the school would be deterred by the costs of appealing the inevitable judgment against the school if school district administrators always were reasonable and had cost/benefit in mind. Yet, I have noticed at least in my state that bureaucrats have a tendency to not think that way when it comes to lawsuits filed against them or their agencies for matters such as these.

      1. The school’s insurance carrier will decide this case. 😉

        1. Paul: Insurance coverage would have to play a large part in it, but the decision has to be from the school board after legal counsel. Doesn’t it?

          1. Steve Groen – the school district might decide if the dollar amount is higher than the insurance policy because they will be paying the extra. However, the idea is to hit the limit of the liability and then it is all up to the carrier.

      2. Darren, bureaucrats don’t think that way because by definition, bureaucrats are not held responsible for the consequences of their actions. The elected School Board could instill some consequences, but for the most part are too dependent on the Superintendent to tell them what to do. It’s extremely rare for the Board members to review and understand the hiring and contractual agreements placed in front of them, and besides, they’re beholden to the unions who funded their election campaigns and walked precincts on their behalf.

        1. Yes, and I might also include that these folks have two detrimental qualities:

          1) Too much power
          2) Too little oversight

  5. Darren, What cases of ‘shocking the conscience’ would you cite to support an allegation that the school violated the rights of the students who were subjected “restorative justice”?

    1. Justice is the purview of law enforcement and the judiciary, not schools.

  6. ” I do not know if these students are racist….” Why does that matter?

    If you are saying “racism is evil” is that not a religious statement? I’m trying to find out what religion teaches that “racism is evil”. Who said that was evil?

    What we have going on is that these students are being punished for “heresy”. Leftist heresy. I like how Leftists/Marxists have set up their values as a religion, a pseudo-religion at that and if you go against the grain—it’s “Off with his head”.

    It is an Inquisition that Left is organizing! They have created an evil doppelganger of Christendom! Complete with Heresy trials and an Inquisition. It’s funny many people don’t recognize what is going on. Nature abhors a vacuum. Get rid of the Truth and one recreates its doppelganger. It’s a crazy world.

    When complaining about the homo magazines at the local public library, the then directer pointed his finger at me and said, “You can’t impose your values on others”. It seems that schools are indoctrinating Marxist values to all their students; they are imposing Marxist values on our children in this country. Truly remarkable about the Hypocrisy going on. Semper Hypocrisy.

    1. Agreed. The ways in which the young are uncharitable and (in a figurative sense) cruel to each other are just endless. The school administration has declared the sin of all sins to be racial / ethnic antagonisms. That steals a base and, as the rude Mlle. Squeaky Fromme points out, will invariably be sectarian in its enforcement because that’s what the prejudices and social ideology of school administrators demands.

      Adults do not suffer the signature vices of adolescents, but they can be plenty bigoted. Those I notice in my social circle are happily ensconced in professional-managerial employments. People of that ilk hardly notice their social prejudices or inter-group hostility and are likely to fancy it’s justified if they do notice it.

    2. It is an Inquisition that Left is organizing!

      Yes… we are plotting w/ the KKK & the neo-Nazis to purge the country!

  7. The atonement exercise was completely and totally unacceptable. This should be more than sufficient to merit a “shocking to the conscious” element of any depravation of rights tort and I might go a step further and say it merits a summary judgment against the school.

    I have to agree with several other commentators that this clearly shows a preview of what is to come twenty years in the future if this left wing attack on free speech continues unabated.

  8. I dare anyone to disagree that there will not be attempts by mainstream politicians (mostly on the left) to enact European style hate speech laws in the US in the next 20 years. It’s coming.

    1. You mean, like the way the Trump Admin is considering getting rid of the 1st Amendment?

  9. “the lawsuit alleges that the school ordered an “atonement” exercise held after the return of the suspended students. This included 15 students including the four plaintiffs who were allegedly “lined up in full view” of the student body and “screamed at.” Two of the students were allegedly assaulted on their way out of the exercise.”


    Atonement exercise? How very Mao with the mass punishment and sponsored ridicule! Do this to my kid and prepare for the prom scene from “Carrie” which would look like a French parasol party in the park by comparison.

  10. Were the images of other students? As a parent, if other students were targeted or taunted, I’d see this as cyber bullying? Many students are cyber bullied to the point of suicide yet we want this sort of behavior catorgorized as free speech? Perhaps I’m missing something. The “atonement” ceremony sounds more like “hazing” to me. I wish people would stop looking for loopholes to justify bad behavior and just behave responsibly.

    1. Many students are cyber bullied to the point of suicide yet we want this sort of behavior catorgorized as free speech?

      How many? A typical age cohort has about 3.8 million members. In a given year in this time period we live in, we can expect 1,800 suicides from among those between their 15th and 20th birthdays, or a tad over 360 per cohort. A typical metropolitan region in a given year will see 1 or perhaps 2 suicides in a year among adolescent youths born in a particular calendar year. That’s suicides undertaken for all the (often occult) reasons youngsters act to kill themselves. To the extent ‘cyberbullying’ is a cause, it’s largely because that’s the medium of communicaiton among today’s youth.

    2. Shannon – I think cyber bullying requires the victim to be aware they are being bullied. In this case, the students in the pictures seem to have been unaware of what was happening.

    3. Actually, I live right next door to Albany…

      I do believe some of the pictures were of students at the school… i recall this as being kind of complicated… and while I didn’t think much of the school’s reaction at the time, i didn’t particularly like the behavior in the first place…

  11. This article left out way too much information. (In addition to misspelling Instagram in the title.) Here is more detail:

    On March 20, students told teachers about another student’s Instagram account on which racist memes were posted. Some students were alleged to have posted comments on the photos and several others had “liked” the images, which were of 11 mostly female students (all but one a person of color) and the school’s African-American girls basketball coach.

    According to school officials, parents and students, the images included nooses drawn around necks of those photographed and side-by-side photos of the girls and apes.

    On March 28, [Superintendent Valerie] Williams sent out “a series of poorly thought out and incendiary emails” to students, parents and the community, calling the plaintiffs and other students “racists” and “harmers,” and creating a community uproar, according to the complaint. The emails included information about separate incidents on campus including seven students who had allegedly been exchanging Nazi salutes in the hallways, as well as an unsubstantiated report of a noose found in a nearby park, according to the lawsuit.

    After their suspensions concluded, the four boys allege they were forced to take part in several “healing” exercises.

    “The plaintiffs 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,” according to the lawsuit. “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.”

    A parent eventually convinced administrators to stop the event, the plaintiffs allege.

    On March 30, the plaintiffs and other suspended students attended another “restorative justice” session where a few hundred protesters gathered outside. They allege administrators failed to get sufficient security to escort them out of the building, leading to two suspended students being physically assaulted, with one suffering a broken nose, the lawsuit alleges.

    The country has become obsessed with finding and rooting out neo-racists. I wish instead we were obsessed with finding and rooting out the trashy behavior engaged in by sooo many blacks in this country. Which behavior makes it rather difficult not to draw comparisons between black high school girls and various members of the primate family. For example, watch this from just the other day, in a Philadelphia High School, where eight teachers were injured breaking up a chimp fight:

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

    1. Valerie Williams received a Bachelor’s in Arts Degree in Speech/Communication from the University of Hawaii in 1982, a Professional Teaching Diploma in 1985 from the University of Hawaii, and a Master’s Degree in Educational Administration & Administrative credential in 1998 from San Jose State University.

      Apparatchik all the way down. She collects her pension in two years without a doubt.

      1. She seems to be doing pretty well. For only part of 2015, total compensation was north of $200k (2016 data not yet available). One good thing about CA is that public employee compensation is mostly readily available (some holdouts, though).

    2. Squeeky – thanks for the article. Shades of the Cultural Revolution. This suit gets more and more interesting.

    3. “breaking up a chimp fight…” ????

      Way to show us all some real class, Squeaky…

  12. I think perhaps Jonathan you’re holding to an outdated notion of what goes on “inside” vs. “outside” school.
    When we were growing up, there was a distinct social environment inside vs.l outside school. Social media have largely dissolved those boundaries. For instance, the school is supposed to set an example of sobriety and underage drinking laws, and therefore discourages teachers from posting party scene images showing a teacher getting drunk. The impression of such images on students is the same regardless of the fact that the teacher got party-drunk off school property and time.

    The advent of social media has been very damaging to many young kids, because it moves adolescent communications beyond the realm of adult supervision. Young people need adult supervision in decreasing amounts as they mature. But, to remove it totally leads to the kind of impulsive, anti-social behavior in this case.

    I know you are a strong 1st Amendment champion, Jonathan, but sometime I’d like you to write about what you believe are the counter-balancing responsibilities to freedom of speech. The 1st Amendment was never intended to give adolescents “anything goes” free speech rights free of adult supervision. Nor was it intended to give employees anything-goes free speech rights working against the interest of their employer.

    The school is trying to teach kids civility. Someone has to take up this responsibility. Actually, it’s a shared responsibility of all adults to see that kids learn civility. So, in this case, I believe the school deserves public support.

    1. I agree with most of what you’ve stated, but isn’t it pretty clear that perp-walk/shaming of the students is quite a few steps too far? Disciplinary measures are generally kept private because the intent is to make positive behavior changes and deter future behavior. This has all the hallmarks of the administration piling on in a pretty sick, sadistic manner.

      1. I agree, yes, the response was disproportionate and probably involved inaccurate “mind-reading” on the part of school officials.

      2. Teachers and school administrators ignore most of the grotesque things youngters say to each other, and, in truth, cannot and should not be expected to microregulate human relations. The twerpette who runs this district isn’t trying to ‘teach civility’. They’re trying to stamp out resistance to their witless social ideology with its long menu of p’s and q’s. The whole business is humbug.

      3. Wonderer – public shaming actually violated a federal law on the privacy of school records. Even if they agreed to it as a belated way to get back into school.

    2. Yeah, but it is only one kind of civility that gets pushed, usually that no one must ever say bad things about black people or gays, no matter how atrocious their behavior. If schools are supposed to get into the business that wish, then 75%+ of the black yutes in the country would be on suspension for their various online misdeeds.

      Standards of civility are too often only enforced against white people.

      Squeeky Fromm
      Girl Reporter

      1. I don’t particularly care for your idiom, but you have a point that this sort of thing reflects both the distorted values of the educational apparat and the attempt to impose those values on the larger community which does not share them. The distorted values include the progtrash ranking of mascot groups and the insistence that disrespect for that ranking is the cardinal sin socially (and that things which are genuinely destructive to personal virtue and the common life are sacrosanct if critiquing them incorporates an implicit injury to the progtrash rank-order). As always, the discretion to define offenses is stripped from families and elected officials and assigned to cadres of occupational groups heavily laden with progtrash.

    3. I believe the school deserves public support.

      No, the school is attempting to assign parental functions to itself that it cannot properly claim and cannot perform well. They deserve resistance and you, sir, are sheeple.

        1. It’s a fair characterization of you. If you want to be characterized more respectfully, you’re going to have to earn it.

    4. pbinca – I could not disagree with you more. The school has over-reached and needs to be mocked.

    5. Yes, teenagers need adult supervision, but that is the responsibility of their parents unless it is related to school behavior.

  13. I’m afraid school administration attracts and retains people who tend to be officious nuisances and tend to have poor forensic and rhetorical skills. They have an impulse to traffick in party lines extraneous to a school’s proper institutional mission and they cannot explain these party lines to their staff or their students, so the line is enforced by petty exercises in punishment.

    The source of the party lines would be the teacher’s colleges and the silly social ideologies they promote. Shut down the teacher’s colleges and replace them with structured apprenticeship programs, and some of this mess will die on the vine.

      1. The trustees can do what they please. They just refuse until a faculty is haemorrhaging cash. Law schools are closing as we speak, and it’s about time. Academic graduate programs should be next.

  14. I’m not familiar with how Instagram works (well outside the target demographic). Would students who didn’t want to be exposed to these images have been exposed/impacted at all? Does following someone’s Instagram feed make it somewhat akin to a private conversation, not intended to be “overheard” by others not invited in?

  15. If the students sue, they will win. The theory is the school has authority over the student portal to portal. From the time the student leaves for school until the time the student returns home. They have no authority over their social media accounts used after school. Now, on top of that there is a free speech right the students have at home, but not at school. The school has not right to impede on their 1st Amend. rights.

    1. The 1st Amendment is not at issue here. What’s at issue is the fanciful notion (common among social workers and school administrators, less common among teachers) that they act in loco parentis with regard to every aspect of the lives of the youth of the nation, An ordinary parent might think they have order maintenance functions which apply during the 1,200 hours a year a youngster is on the school campus and teach academic and vocational subjects outside the parental skill set and time budget. The twerpettes and cookie-pushers on teachers’ college faculties and in school administration have much more expansive ideas (but not the skills to match).

    2. The school’s ‘atonement excercise’
      Let that sink in for awhile.
      That IS something they use out of Communist China and North Korea.
      You can google it.
      This article is Scary Plus!
      If they can check out our likes, tweets, shares. And link it back to your job or school…it time the masses wake up.

      1. That’s exactly what I was thinking when I read the post. There is a certain irony in three of the students being Asian-American. I wonder if their families left Communist China ever thinking that their kids would be subject to “re-education camp” abuses in an American high school?

  16. Make America Great again.
    Take those disciplinarians out and flog them.
    Pee on them.
    Put em in a box.
    Then talk em to death.

    Free Speech.

  17. (music- Country Joe and The Fish-)
    For its: one, two, three,
    What are we fightin for?
    Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn!
    Next stop is Viet Nam!

    And its five, six, seven,
    Open up the Pearly Gates!

    Ain’t no time to wonder why..
    Whoopee we’re all gonna die!

    1. Thank you for that great end of the week jaunt down memory lane.

      Maybe some are doing a who dat or who dem but for me it was going into Boston on the MTA from Wellesely on Saturday. One of my favorite places was called the Unicorn on Boylston Street. Opening the door to go in actually led down a flight of stairs to the underground café where old church pews were in vogue . There I heard the no name
      C.J.&.T.🐟. Went home to Jersey for 🎄 and bam they have a number album circa 1967. Telling friends how I just saw them at….

      Four Tops were the featured attraction at Northeastern winter carnival that same year.

      Probably my real fav was seeing Janis Ian and her sing Society’s Child.


      1. went to the animal fair,
        The Birds and the Beasts were there.
        The big baboon, by the light of the moon,
        Was combing his auburn hair.
        The monkey, he got drunk,
        And sat on the elephant’s trunk.
        The elephant sneezed and fell on his knees,
        And what became of the monk, the monk?
        |: The monk, the monk, the monk. 😐

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Res ipsa loquitur – The thing itself speaks
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