Law & Courts

A Student Lampooned His Principal on Instagram and Got Suspended. Now, He’s Suing

By Mark Walsh — July 19, 2023 6 min read
The U.S. Supreme Court is seen on July 13, 2023, in Washington.
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A Tennessee high school student has sued his principal and school district over his suspension for social media posts meant to satirize the principal’s “overly serious demeanor.”

“This case is about a thin-skinned high school principal defying the First Amendment and suspending a student for lampooning the principal on the student’s Instagram account even though the posts caused no disruption at school,” says the suit filed Wednesday on behalf of the student identified as I.P., a rising senior at Tullahoma High School in Tullahoma, Tenn.

The school district did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

One of the student’s posts depicted Principal Jason Quick, who left the school in June, as an anime cat with whiskers and cat ears and wearing a dress. Another pasted Quick’s head on a hand-drawn cartoon meant to resemble an online game character. The third added student comments to a reposting of a photo of the principal holding a box of fruit that Quick had posted online.

The 17-year-old student is backed by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), the Philadelphia-based free speech advocacy group closely associated with First Amendment matters on college campuses but which expanded last year to off-campus speech cases, including those involving K-12 schools.

“These were a general satire of a principal who was apparently known for being overly serious,” said Conor T. Fitzpatrick, a FIRE staff lawyer.

The suit argues that the high school is enforcing social media policies that conflict with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2021 decision that tossed a yearlong suspension from a cheerleading team for a student who had used vulgar language on Snapchat after she failed to make the varsity squad.

The high court’s decision in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. said schools could punish off-campus bullying or threats targeting specific individuals but that they do not operate “in loco parentis,” or in place of parents, when it comes to most off-campus speech, and lower courts should be skeptical of school efforts to broadly regulate such expression.

A handful of lower courts have issued decisions interpreting Mahanoy, with some victories for students and some for schools.

Such student-speech rulings “are still in the early stages,” said Robert Hachiya, an associate professor of educational leadership at Kansas State University who teaches education law to administrators and tracks student-speech cases.

Posts meant to poke fun at a principal’s ‘serious demeanor’

The latest lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Winchester, Tenn., says that student I.P. had a high grade point average and talent as a trombonist in the school band. He has had an Instagram account since he was 12.

In the spring of 2022, he reposted, from his father’s home in Alabama, the photo that Quick had published of himself holding a box of fruit. I.P. and a friend added comments such as “my brotha” and “like a sister but not a sister” to suggest, as the suit puts it, “a close friendship between I.P. and Quick and to provide a humorous contrast to Quick’s overly serious demeanor towards I.P. and other students.”

Then last summer, while in Italy, the student posted an image of Quick’s head with a dress or maid’s outfit, with cat ears and whiskers and the title “Neko quick.” “Neko” is Japanese for cat.

The student posted the third image after the first day of school last August, with Quick’s head near a cartoon bird, “again providing a satirical commentary on Quick’s desire to be seen by students as a serious and professional academic administrator,” the suit says.

A few days later, I.P. was ordered to the principal’s office, where Quick and an assistant principal informed the student he was being suspended for five days for violating the high school’s social media policies. (The suspension was later reduced to three days.)

The policy says students may be punished for disseminating “unauthorized or misrepresented photograph, video, or recording for the purpose of embarrassing, demeaning, or discrediting the reputation of any student or staff.”

“That policy is squarely unconstitutional under Mahanoy, and so is I.P.’s suspension,” the suit contends.

Fitzpatrick said that I.P.’s social media posts did not cause any disruption at Tullahoma High.

“We see Mahanoy setting forth a pretty clear principle that if a student expresses himself outside of school and there are not threats or disruptions to the school, it’s none of the school’s business,” Fitzpatrick said.

The suit says Quick “tried to ensure students could not satirize him ‘at all.’ But I.P., like every American, has a First Amendment right to satirize or criticize government officials without fear of retribution so long as he does so in a way that does not substantially disrupt or threaten to substantially disrupt school.”

Some half-dozen lower-court decisions interpreting Mahanoy

Kansas State’s Hachiya says there have been at least a half dozen lower-court decisions applying the Mahanoy decision to student-speech disputes. Some courts have sided with students, such as a Pennsylvania state court that overturned the expulsion of a student who had posted violent song lyrics by a death metal band on Snapchat, which his school had interpreted as a threat. The commonwealth court held that the posting was not a true threat and did not disrupt school and that the discipline violated the student’s free speech rights.

Other courts have sided with school districts, as in the case of a middle school student who posted video on Snapchat drinking alcohol in her bedroom. She was suspended from school activities, which was upheld by a federal district court that ruled the school was punishing the illegal act of underage drinking, “not pure speech.”

The most recent decision to interpret Mahanoy came in June, from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati. A three-judge panel of that court upheld the 10-day suspension of a Michigan student who created a fake Instagram account impersonating one of his teachers.

Some of the student’s friends added vulgar and violent messages to the account, all purporting to come from the originally targeted teacher, two other teachers, and one student with a disability. The student who originated the account deleted it after a few days, but not before the teacher noticed it, leading to the student’s suspension by the Freeland, Mich., school district.

The 6th Circuit court held that the student who originated the fake account could be disciplined, even though it was other students who had posted the offensive material. The court also held that the account disrupted school.

“Defendants reasonably forecasted that a fake Instagram account that impersonated a Freeland teacher and directed sexual and violent posts at three Freeland teachers and a student would substantially disrupt normal school proceedings,” the court said in its June 2 decision in Kutchinski v. Freeland Community School District.

Fitzpatrick, the FIRE lawyer representing the Tennessee student in the new lawsuit, said the 6th Circuit decision is based on violent and vulgar posts on a fake Instagram account.

“You have a level of severity and disruption that is not present here,” in student I.P.’s case, he said.

Hachiya said the 6th Circuit case appeared to involve speech “clearly targeting” a teacher or teachers in the district with violent and other inappropriate messages.

But that is different from off-campus social media speech that merely lampoons school officials, he said.

“Sometimes, people are overly sensitive,” said Hachiya, a former school principal. “Students have made fun of teachers and principals forever. Social media is just a new way to do it. People need a little bit thicker skin and let it roll off.”

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