For immediate release Thursday, August 11 2011
Contact: Kenneth J. Falk (ACLU of Indiana)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - Discipline by the Smith-Green School Corporation taken against two Churubusco High School student-athletes in 2009 violated the girls' right to free speech, the federal court for the northern district of Indiana ruled Wednesday.
The school corporation suspended the girls from extra-curricular activities because they had posted pictures on an Internet social network site during the summer vacation that the school principal deemed "inappropriate." The school later partly reduced the penalty after the two students agreed to counseling and apologized to a board consisting of administrators and male coaches.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana represented the students in their case against the school corporation, arguing that the conduct of the students had no substantial disruptive effect on the school. The court concluded that the discipline violated the First Amendment rights of free speech. The court also enjoined application of the school policy under which the students could be punished because they brought "discredit or dishonor" upon themselves or the school. The court said the policy was vague and overbroad.
ACLU of Indiana Legal Director Kenneth J. Falk said the behavior of the girls should never have been the focus of the school decision. "The only appropriate issue is what effect it had on the school, and the answer is clearly it had no adverse effects," he said.
The court ruled that the high school principal, who made the suspension decision, could not be sued because he was protected by qualified immunity. It left open the question of whether the school corporation was absolutely immune from damages.
The question of whether, due to recent changes in school funding, schools are now considered to be a state entity protected by the absolute immunity of the Eleventh Amendment is currently pending in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in another, non-ACLU, case and a decision as to whether Smith-Green Community School Corporation is liable for damages will await a decision in that case.
The ACLU of Indiana is the Indiana affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU is dedicated to protecting the freedoms guaranteed to Indiana residents and businesses by the Indiana and United States Constitutions.
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