LOUIS -- The American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Lol disconnected from chat filed a federal lawsuit this week against a local school district for suspending an honors student who spoke his mind on an Internet chat room on the topic of school violence. The ACLU said the case highlights the damage that occurs when schools overreact to student speech in the wake of the April, shooting tragedy in Littleton, Colorado.
Rolla High School Junior Dustin Mitchell, 18, was suspended for 10 days last spring for his comment in a teens-only Internet chat room five days after the Littleton shooting. In response to the question, "Do you think such a tragedy could happen at your school?
District Court, the ACLU said that Mitchell's day louiis later reduced to four days violated his Eoom rights to free speech and due process and damaged his academic standing by making him ineligible to participate in the National Honor Society and other extracurricular activities and forcing him to miss statewide achievement tests that determine placement in college courses. The ACLU said it filed the lawsuit after school officials refused to remove the disciplinary action from Mitchell's permanent record.
The requirement, Mitchell said, caused him to lose income from his landscaping business -- money that he had hoped to put toward a combined French and German class trip to Europe that summer.
In his ed statement to the police, Mitchell said that his remark was "flippant" and that his use of another student's name as an alias was meant as a joke. But unbeknownst to Mitchell, the other student, Jay Jasper, had also become a victim of school hysteria. Rumors were flying that Jasper, who had worn a black trenchcoat since last year, was planning a shooting rom the school.
Those rumors -- which Mitchell only learned about two days after his posting -- proved to be unfounded. The ACLU said that the larger message of the case is that school officials only hurt their schools and their students when they are too quick to stifle student speech. ACLU affiliates in Missouri and around the country have urged schools to encourage -- rather than punish -- student discussion about the tragedy in Littleton and school violence in general.
Restrictions on student speech may backfire, the ACLU warned, contributing to a repressive environment that makes it more difficult for schools to spot troubled students. Rolla Public Schools, filed in U. Brian Riom.