School Climate & Safety

Law Barring ‘Verbal Assault’ At School Struck Down

By Catherine Gewertz — November 12, 2003 1 min read
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A Michigan student who was suspended from school for reading an inflammatory commentary to fellow students has won his fight to invalidate a state law and a district policy that school officials used as the basis for his punishment.

U.S. District Judge David M. Lawson, of Bay City, Mich., ruled that the 1999 Michigan law requiring schools to suspend or expel students who engaged in a “verbal assault” in school was unconstitutionally vague and overbroad, as was the Mount Pleasant City School District’s policy written to reflect the state law.

But the judge refused to order the 3,800-student district to remove the suspension from the student’s record, saying that because some of the things he said were outside the bounds of speech protected by the First Amendment, district officials did not overstep their authority in disciplining him.

Kary L. Moss, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, which sued the district on behalf of the family of Alexander N. Smith, said that no decision has been made on whether to appeal that part of the decision.

“This case reflects the decreased tolerance of student rights in schools,” she said last week.

The state did not respond to Judge Lawson’s invitation to defend the statute.

‘Vicious and Personal’

Mr. Smith, who now attends Michigan State University, was a junior at Mount Pleasant High School in central Michigan in fall 2000 when he read aloud to friends at his lunch table a three-page commentary criticizing the school’s new tardiness policy.

In addition to opposing the policy, however, Mr. Smith attacked school officials, calling the principal a “skank” and a “tramp” and saying the assistant principal was confused about his sexuality, according to court documents.

Two students who overheard the remarks reported them to administrators, who suspended Mr. Smith for 10 days. The suspension was reduced to eight days after Mr. Smith’s family agreed to have him meet with a psychotherapist, who found that the student had intended no harm.

Principal Betty Kirby said she would have taken no action against Mr. Smith if his comments had been confined to opposing school policy. “What we did was proper,” she said.

Judge Lawson said in his Sept. 30 opinion that administrators had the right to discipline Mr. Smith for his “vicious and personal” comments because the remarks had undercut administrators’ authority.

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