Justices Decline Student ‘Instant Message’ Speech Case

By Mark Walsh — March 31, 2008 1 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court today declined to review the case of an 8th-grader who was suspended for an off-campus Internet message with a drawing that suggested a teacher should be shot and killed.

The justices declined without comment to hear the appeal of the family in Wisniewski v. Board of Education of the Weedsport Central School District (Case No. 07-987).

According to court papers, Aaron Wisniewski was a student at Weedsport Middle School in 2001 when he sent an instant message on America Online to a friend with an icon featuring a pistol firing bullets at a person’s head, with the words “Kill Mr. VanderMolen.” Philip VanderMolen was the youth’s English teacher. Wisniewski was suspended for one semester for the message.

The family challenged the discipline in court, arguing that the boy’s speech was protected by the First Amendment because it was not a true threat.

Both a federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City, ruled for the school district.

The appeals court panel said in its unanimous opinion the student’s transmission of the icon “crosses the boundary of protected speech and constitutes student conduct that poses a reasonably forseeable risk that the icon would come to the attention of school authorities and that it would materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.