Four students in a small town in the US state of Michigan are suing the school district for receiving suspension after accusations that they used racist language in posts on social media.
According to reports, the messages in question appeared in a private Snapchat group, where some of the participants made references to African Americans in derogatory terms.
An ABC affiliate in Detroit is reporting about this, saying that the messages “surfaced” and then led to the high school students' suspension.
This case seems to show an increasingly blurring line between perceptions of private and public when social media come into play, and challenges as unconstitutional the right of schools to police and punish their student's behavior outside the school grounds.
Attorney David A. Kollman, who is representing the four and their parents, said the language described as racist was used jokingly, during an exchange between African American and Caucasian students that he said amounted to “immature banter among friends.”
However, these Snapchat posts have resulted in real-world consequences, and the lawsuit is now accusing the school district of rushing to judgment and in the process violating the students' right to free speech and due process.
The federal lawsuit argues that the school attempted to police and discipline students where it has no authority: on social media platforms, that cannot be considered as “school grounds.”
According to the attorney, the Snapchat messages were sent while the students were in their homes, using their own phones, and on a non-school day.
Kollman's statement further noted that by acting outside the bounds of its authority, the school violated constitutional rights of the students and their parents.
At the time the suspensions were announced, Superintendent Scot Graden spoke against racism, hate and prejudice in both “our schools or our community” – seemingly extending the school's authority off-campus, and outside its original scope.
Two of the four students have been allowed to return to classes after completing a class on racism, the filing said. Two others could still face expulsion.
The lawsuit now wants the court to declare the school district's action as unconstitutional and order a revision of its practices to avoid similar situations in the future.