PHILADELPHIA — A federal judge is keeping alive a Springfield Township High School student's freedom of speech lawsuit against the school over her suspension last spring following distribution of a video of her voicing race-based hate.
The student, identified in court documents as "R.E.M.," sufficiently alleged constitutional rights violations after the school suspended her for "inappropriate behavior," U.S. District Court Judge Gerald J. Pappert, on the bench in Pennsylvania's Eastern District, said in a recent order.
R.E.M. backed up her claims that the school district "had a policy or custom of unconstitutionally censoring off-campus student speech," Pappert's nine-page order issued Aug. 7 said.
R.E.M. cited a letter from Springfield Township Assistant Principal Scott Zgraggen that indicated R.E.M. had been suspended for behavior violating school discipline policy, Pappert's order said.
"R.E.M. also asserts that Superintendent [Nancy] Hacker approved and ratified the decision to discipline R.E.M.," the order said. "Because she alleges that Superintendent Hacker was a policy maker for the District, Hacker’s decision to suspend R.E.M. can also be considered the result of a policy or custom exposing the district to (Section) 1983 liability."
Zgraggen and Hacker, along with school Principal Charles E. Rittenhouse, are named with the school district as defendants in the case.
In his order, Pappert denied a defense motion to dismiss R.E.M.'s case against the three based on qualified immunity but said they may renew their arguments in favor of dismissal during summary judgment.
Springfield Township School had asked Pappert to dismiss the case, saying R.E.M. had failed to assert a valid First Amendment violation because the video did not amount to speech entitled to Constitutional protection. The defendants argued R.E.M.'s Snapchat message had not been a public expression on matters of public concern, according to Pappert's order.
Pappert declined to accept that argument.
"To determine whether speech is of public or private concern, the court must independently examine the content, form and context of the speech as revealed by the whole record," Pappert said in his order. "In considering content, form, and context, no factor is dispositive, and it is necessary to evaluate all aspects of the speech. The Court cannot at this stage determine that R.E.M.'s Snapchat video was not of public concern without the benefit of a developed record."
The case was filed in September by R.E.M. and her parents against Springfield Township School in U.S. District Court for Pennsylvania's Eastern District of Pennsylvania alleging defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
R.E.M. was shown in the video distributed among Springfield Township students in April of last year, saying, "I hate black people, especially girls."
The video eventually was brought to the attention of school administrators after it had been widely distributed.
In their six-count lawsuit, the plaintiffs alleged the school and administrators violated the minor's First Amendment rights when she was placed on five days' suspension. The lawsuit claims R.E.M. was defamed by the publication of "implied references" in emails sent to students and parents in the aftermath of the video because she could be identified as the owner of the Snapchat account, according to the lawsuit.
School administrators clearly felt the video had caused disruption, the defendants said in their May 22 brief.
"It is clear from the email attached to plaintiffs' original complaint that the administration was genuinely concerned about the imminent disruption that the comments were having on the student body and noted that they were fulfilling their responsibility to educate and that they were focused on addressing the school community," the motion said. "The communications stated that the video had been reviewed by 'numerous students, parents and staff and specifically noted that there were [other] students who have been hurt.' Of note, neither the email nor Smart Board identify the plaintiff or make any references to her identity."
In response to the motion, R.E.M. said the message about hate based on race had been privately posted to Snapchat "at a minor’s home to the home of another minor" and had been of limited duration.
"A third party apparently discovered the message and brought it to the attention of school officials at Springfield Township School District, who sanctioned R.E.M. for holding an opinion which they apparently believed to be offensive," the plaintiffs' answer said. "There is no credible evidence of imminent disruption of the educational process, except the bald statement in defendants' motion to dismiss that the Snapchat was disruptive and emotionally hurtful to some students."
The defendants' answer also maintained there is no evidence that R.E.M. intended "to disrupt the educational process in any way, or even that her message be transmitted to the school."
"There is no nexus set forth in defendants' brief between the social media post and anyone at the school, or the educational function therein," the answer read. "The overarching legal issue here is the balance between freedom of expression and censorship in public schools."