Tweet calling an administrator ‘Public Enemy #1’ gets Kansas student suspended

Student receives out-of-school suspension for “uncomfortable” tweet about assistant principal


By Kenneth Palmer and Becca Moran

Choruses of angry shouts echoed from the student section during the Feb. 18 home basketball game against Shawnee Mission South. But what was supposed to be a display of school spirit quickly raised questions about the First Amendment rights of students. Assistant Principal Keith Jones kicked out students heckling the referee.

One student was suspended from the two remaining home games. Later that night, students took their outcry to social media.

Jones said he was simply trying to promote more sportsmanlike behavior and the students’ conduct crossed the line from intense involvement to disrespectful behavior of the opposing team and referee. Still, opposition escalated rapidly. At the peak of student disapproval, senior Jackson Schneider tweeted a picture of Jones with the caption “Public Enemy #1.”

“I don’t really have any personal issues with him,” Schneider said. “It was just upsetting to see that he handled the altercation at the basketball game the way that he did.”

According to the official disciplinary report, which Schneider made available to the Free Press, he was issued an out-of-school suspension. While Schneider will be able to make up the work he missed, the suspension will remain on his permanent record.

The report said his tweet “created an uncomfortable environment for Mr. Jones.” Jones declined to speak specifically about the “Public Enemy” tweet, but he said schools have a right to take action when things students say online affect the school day. He noted the district’s cyberbullying policy on page 31 of the student handbook.

“… Bullying shall include cyberbullying initiated on or off of school premises which threatens or endangers the safety of students, employees, or third parties, or school property, or which substantially disrupts the educational program of the district.”

Jones said students recently learned about this at a school assembly.

“Regardless if it’s a teacher, whether it’s an administrator, whether it’s your student in the classroom, if you are taking inappropriate pictures or commenting on things that are going on during the school day, then there should be action taken against that,” he said. “It could be harassment, from the legal standpoint, or defamation or libel on somebody’s character. Then someone can sue you.”

That’s wrong in this case, according to Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center and an expert on the First Amendment.

“School administrators are government employees, and we don’t let government employees use their regulatory authority to protect their own reputations,” LoMonte said. “They can bring lawsuits if they want to do that, but they can’t use their punitive powers to settle personal grudges.”

The Student Press Law Center advocates for student First Amendment rights.

In effect, LoMonte said making Jones “uncomfortable,” is not an adequate reason to punish a student and is likely a violation of Schneider’s First Amendment rights. “I don’t think there’s any question that the principal overreached if the basis for the discipline was purely reputational harm on an off-campus social media site,” LoMonte said.

LoMonte said if Schneider had made a false claim that was plausible, such as accusing an administrator of hitting a student, then the student would have been outside his legal rights. Schneider’s statement, however, was understood to be a joke and is legally permissible.

“A comment mocking a school official on a social media site in a humorous way is constitutionally protected speech,” LoMonte said. Schneider’s tweet is no different than a poster declaring someone “Public enemy #1” according to LoMonte.

“Just making a wanted poster about somebody is classic hyperbole, meaning that a reasonable reader doesn’t take it literally,” LoMonte said. “No reasonable reader looks at that poster and thinks that the principal is a wanted felon.”

Many students remain upset by the school’s response. The “Public Enemy” tweet received 56 favorites and four retweets on Twitter. Other tweets reacting to Schneider’s punishment received a similar response, ranging from 10 to 45 favorites. Despite the popularity of some of these tweets, Schneider admits his tweets aren’t always published with the best judgment.

“I understand that it wasn’t a very good thing to tweet,” Schneider said.

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