ACLU of MA Sues Holliston School Officials for Punishing Students Over Protest Signs

May 2, 2002 12:00 am

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BOSTON–The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts today filed a lawsuit in Middlesex Superior Court on behalf of Amanda Melanson and Elizabeth Cooper, two seniors at Holliston High School who were suspended them from school for two days and banned — for the rest of the school year — from all extracurricular activities, including the senior prom and graduation, because they held signs protesting the expulsion of two classmates.

“The law is clear that public school students in Massachusetts cannot be punished for their expression in school unless they are disruptive. There was nothing disruptive about their conduct in holding up their signs,” said Sarah Wunsch, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Massachusetts. “We are asking the judge to issue an order that will allow these two young women to attend the very important events of the senior prom and graduation, and at the same time protect the First Amendment rights of students.”

The incident arose at the end of the annual talent show known as the “Senior Showcase.” All the seniors, including the ACLU’s clients, rushed onto the stage, screaming, yelling, and dancing. Melanson and Cooper used this opportunity to hold up signs which read, “Free Willie,” “Free Willie and Quinn,” and “You Should Have Been Here.” The messages referred to Michael Quinn and William Lichter, whose expulsion from school is being hotly debated in Holliston.

Other students with them on the stage waved a Canadian flag and a T-shirt with other messages. Many students were wearing T-shirts that also contained printed messages. Only the students holding signs supporting the expelled classmates were disciplined.

School officials claim that Melanson and Cooper’s display of the signs disrupted the Senior Showcase and brought “dishonor” to the school. But Wunsch said that a review of a videotape of the event shows that there was no disruption. “Even if some people in the audience didn’t like or agree with the messages on the signs, that’s not the disruption required to punish students for their peaceful expression,” she said.

Cooper and Melanson said they are very upset at how harshly school officials have responded. “We shouldn’t be punished for voicing our opinions,” said Cooper. Melanson added, “The adults don’t want to hear things they don’t like but we have every right to say it.”

The lawsuit, Melanson et al. v. Young et al., is brought on behalf of the two students and names school Superintendent Dr. Nancy Young, Acting Principal Dr. Carol Sager, and Vice-Principal Doug Dias as defendants.

A hearing is scheduled for May 15, 2002 at 2:00 p.m. in Middlesex Superior Court on the request for a preliminary injunction.

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