ACLU Defends Missouri Honors Student Suspended for Remark in Internet Chat Room

Affiliate: ACLU of Kansas
October 14, 1999 12:00 am

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ST. LOUIS — The American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri filed a federal lawsuit this week against a local school district for suspending an honors student who spoke his mind on an Internet chat room on the topic of school violence.

The ACLU said the case highlights the damage that occurs when schools overreact to student speech in the wake of the April, 1999 shooting tragedy in Littleton, Colorado.

Rolla High School Junior Dustin Mitchell, 18, was suspended for 10 days last spring for his comment in a teens-only Internet chat room five days after the Littleton shooting. In response to the question, “Do you think such a tragedy could happen at your school?” Mitchell, using an online alias (a common chat room practice), responded “Yes!”

In legal papers filed before the U.S. District Court, the ACLU said that Mitchell’s 10-day suspension (later reduced to four days) violated his Constitutional rights to free speech and due process and damaged his academic standing by making him ineligible to participate in the National Honor Society and other extracurricular activities and forcing him to miss statewide achievement tests that determine placement in college courses.

The ACLU said it filed the lawsuit after school officials refused to remove the disciplinary action from Mitchell’s permanent record.

“While schools of course have legitimate concerns about safety, the Rolla School District clearly overreacted to Mitchell’s Internet message,” said Denise Field, Interim Executive Director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. “Mitchell’s speech, which took place in a teens-only chat room in a private home over the weekend, is clearly protected by the First Amendment, and outside the scope of the school’s disciplinary authority.”

At risk of being prosecuted, Mitchell also was required to do 42 hours of community service with the Rolla Police Department within 19 days. The requirement, Mitchell said, caused him to lose income from his landscaping business — money that he had hoped to put toward a combined French and German class trip to Europe that summer.

In his signed statement to the police, Mitchell said that his remark was “flippant” and that his use of another student’s name as an alias was meant as a joke. But unbeknownst to Mitchell, the other student, Jay Jasper, had also become a victim of school hysteria. Rumors were flying that Jasper, who had worn a black trenchcoat since last year, was planning a shooting at the school.

Those rumors — which Mitchell only learned about two days after his posting — proved to be unfounded. “I had no clue that the post would coincide with such bad timing and I am sorry for the message,” Mitchell said in his police statement.

The ACLU said that the larger message of the case is that school officials only hurt their schools and their students when they are too quick to stifle student speech.

ACLU affiliates in Missouri and around the country have urged schools to encourage — rather than punish — student discussion about the tragedy in Littleton and school violence in general. Restrictions on student speech may backfire, the ACLU warned, contributing to a repressive environment that makes it more difficult for schools to spot troubled students.

“Dustin’s college options are now jeopardized,” said the ACLU’s Field. “The best solution in this post-Littleton era is for schools to resist this pressure to punish free expression and look instead for positive responses that will allow students to feel valued and respected.”

The case is Dustin Mitchell v. Rolla Public Schools, filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, Eastern Division, No.4:99CV01554JCH. Brian D. Scheiderer of Rolla is representing Mitchell as a cooperating attorney with the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. The text of the complaint is available online at: /court/Mitchell_brief.html

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