Opinion: Tullahoma schools district gets a hard lesson on the First Amendment

AP File Photo/Alex Brandon / The U.S. Supreme Court, seen on Jan. 20, 2023, in Washington, D.C., has previously ruled that free expression outside normal school hours is permitted and is within one's First Amendment rights.
AP File Photo/Alex Brandon / The U.S. Supreme Court, seen on Jan. 20, 2023, in Washington, D.C., has previously ruled that free expression outside normal school hours is permitted and is within one's First Amendment rights.

With the proliferation of social media, we wouldn't suggest any student let loose words, phrases or images in their free time intended to embarrass school personnel.

It's just not seemly, it may say more about the student than the target, and it likely shows the student could make better use of their free time. But it's nevertheless a free expression of the student's First Amendment rights.

The Tullahoma, Tennessee, City Schools district is finding out that last point about free speech the hard way.

Tullahoma High School, in an stipulation signed last Monday, agreed to remove a three-day, out-of-school suspension from the student record of a 17-year-old junior who had been suspended in August 2022 for posting satirical images or memes that made fun of the principal's "overly serious behavior."

In the agreement, the school also agreed to remove pages from its student handbook that said students cannot "embarrass," "discredit" or "humiliate" members of the school community or cannot makes posts on social media that are "unbecoming of a Wildcat" [the school's nickname].

The judicial signatory on the agreement is that of Susan K. Lee, chief United States magistrate judge, whose office is in Chattanooga.

The student, with representation by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), had filed suit in July to erase the suspension and have the school's policies changed. Even with the stipulation, representatives of FIRE said the suit would continue until "the student's constitutional rights are fully vindicated and ... these vague policies [are removed], for good."

It is unclear what additional measure the suit is seeking.

The then-principal of the school, Jason Quick, and vice principal, Derrick Crutchfield, had suspended the student because they said the student had violated the school's handbook policy on social media.

However, the three images of the principal were done outside of school hours, were not done at the school, were done on personal devices, were posted on the student's Instagram page, and did not disrupt the school day. One depicted the principal as an anime cat wearing a dress, a second showed him holding a box of vegetables with the caption "My brotha," and the third showed the principal's head superimposed on a hand-drawn cartoon character being hugged by a cartoon bird.

They were intended, according to FIRE, to be tongue-in-cheek commentary, gently lampooning a school administration the student perceived as humorless.

"The First Amendment protects the right of America's students to express themselves on social media and even criticize or satirize school officials," said FIRE attorney Conor Fitzpatrick. "As long as the student's expression does not substantially disrupt the school day, school administrators have no business acting as a board of censors over students' private speech."

The United States Supreme Court, according to the lawsuit, previously ruled that free expression outside normal school hours is permitted and within one's First Amendment rights.

"This case," the lawsuit states, "is about a thin-skinned high school principal defying the First Amendment and suspending a student for lampooning the principal on the student's Instagram page even though the posts caused no disruption at school."

We know a little something about an incident that, on the other hand, might have caused a school disruption, had it seen the light of day. It was part of a supposedly cutesy entry of alphabet matches published in a newspaper some of us put together in junior high school — the precursor to middle school — many years ago. You know: Adorable — Bart Carsten, Beautiful — Becky Pascom, Creative — Miss Edwards (the art teacher) ... . When it came to "W," we wrote Wacky and followed it with a teacher's name.

For some reason, we went ahead and made copies for all students without a teacher's (sponsor's) approval. Bad idea. Let's just say hundreds of copies of that mimeographed newspaper had a Magic Marker line drawn through the "W" entry.

Many students are fortunately creative and able to draw lampoon-ish work like the Tullahoma High student but not yet blessed with the maturity to know how ubiquitous social media is. Fortunately, the First Amendment protects him, and, as Fitzpatrick, the attorney, told WZTZ, "America's teens have First Amendment rights. They don't just get to learn about the First Amendment, they get to use the First Amendment."

The school district also might have avoided trouble if Quick — who left the school at the end of the 2022-2023 year — had been able to laugh at himself (or at least an image of himself).

We could all use a little more laughter in our lives these days.