First Amendment

Suspension for Violent IM Upheld

A school did not violate an eighth-grade student’s First Amendment rights by suspending him for instant messaging a crude image suggesting that a teacher be shot and killed, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The drawing, sent from a home computer, showed a pistol pointed at a person’s head and dots representing splattered blood. Beneath the picture were the words, “Kill Mr. VanderMolen,” an English teacher. A police investigator concluded the message was a joke and that the boy posed no threat.

The image “crosses the boundary of protected speech” and could disrupt the work and discipline of the school, according to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in New York City. The image did not need to be a true threat for discipline to be imposed, the court said.

Suzanne Galbato, who represented the school board, told the New York Law Journal that the opinion is important because it gives school officials broader authority to sanction speech. “It clarifies that there doesn’t have to be a true threat for school officials to impose discipline,” she said.

The ruling is Wisniewski v. Board of Education [PDF], No. 06-3394-cv.

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