Cursing at Your Congressman Off of School Grounds Shouldn’t Get You Suspended
On March 14, students across the country joined a walkout to demand stricter gun laws following the Parkland shooting that claimed 17 lives. Among the protesters was Noah C., a high school junior in Reno, Nevada, who called the office of U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei with a passionate message.
“Members of Congress who haven’t acted on gun control reforms,” Noah C. told a staffer in the congressman’s office, “need to get off their fucking asses and do something to keep us safe.”
Noah was one of many students at the walkout who exercised their First Amendment right to use strong language in messages to their local representatives. But instead of seriously addressing the valid concerns of a young constituent, Amodei’s office decided to escalate the situation by reporting the call to Robert McQueen High School, where Noah is a junior. Within hours, Noah — who had never faced a detention or any academic issues — found himself suspended.
The move sets a dangerous precedent, considering Noah’s impassioned plea for gun control legislation did not occur during school or at a school-sanctioned or -sponsored event. That’s why the ACLU of Nevada is stepping in to defend him. Noah’s suspension is an unconstitutional attack on his First Amendment rights, which could have a chilling effect on others who might want to contact their representative. We urge the school to reverse its suspension and Amodei to withdraw his complaint.
Unfortunately, McQueen High School has a history of trying to tamp down on Noah’s speech.
At a McQueen debate tournament earlier this year, Noah went off-script to give his thoughts on how President Donald Trump’s policy positions and rhetoric is harmful to the community. Afterward, Noah felt compelled to write a letter of apology to his student opponent, who lodged an unfounded bullying complaint against him.
McQueen administrators have pointed to that incident as an example of prior bad behavior, even though he was never disciplined for it. The school said that Noah’s political speech as the debate tournament should have been a learning experience to keep his emotions under control.
Noah was similarly outspoken during the fall of 2017 when he noticed McQueen implementing its dress code in a discriminatory manner. The high school was punishing female students, but not their male peers, for baring their shoulders.
Noah protested the school’s discriminatory enforcement by starting the hashtag campaign, “#FreeTheShoulder.” Noah then wore a shirt to school that read “Free the Shoulder,” and the administration threatened him with disciplinary action unless he removed it.
Despite McQueen’s uncharitable characterization of him, Noah is an exemplary student and leader. He’s been a member of the Chinese Club, the Spanish Club, the Debate Club, Academic Olympics, and Academic World Quest, where his team was the Nevada state champion and placed 10th in the national finals. Noah’s mock trial team advanced to state championships both years he was on the team.
But his academic and extra-curricular achievements aren’t what matters. What matters is that Noah, like the rest of us, have rights under the First Amendment. You’d think public school administrators and a U.S. congressman would remember that, but we have no problem reminding them of that fact.