Shen et al. v. Albany Unified School District, et al., 2017 WL 5890089 (N.D. Ca. 2017).

First Amendment; Free Speech Rights - Student expression off campus via social media

General Interest to School Officials
Case: Shen et al. v. Albany Unified School District, et al., 2017 WL 5890089 (N.D. Ca. 2017).
Date: Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The school district had the right to not only discipline student C.E. for racist and derogatory content directed toward specific students that he posted on an Instagram account, but also to discipline other students who commented on and/or “liked” certain posts.

In November 2016, Plaintiff C.E. created an Instagram account and granted access to a group of Albany High School (AHS) students. In March 2017, AHS students and school personnel discovered the account and its contents. The account contained 30-40 posts, many of which targeted AHS students and school personnel with racist and derogatory content, including a picture of an African-American AHS student and an African-American AHS basketball coach with nooses drawn around their necks. The district expelled C.E. and suspended students who had commented on or “liked” C.E.’s posts, as well as one student who had access to the account but never commented on or otherwise responded to it online.

The Court first considered whether the speech at issue was school speech, and found that it was because a “nexus” to the school existed (account followers were mostly school students, the posts featured 10 different students and school personnel, and the posts depicted school activities and were clearly taken on campus). In addition, even though C.E. intended that the Instagram account remain private, it was reasonably foreseeable that the speech would reach the school and create a risk of substantial disruption.

Next, the Court found that because the speech substantially disrupted school and invaded the rights of others, the district appropriately disciplined C.E. and those who commented on or “liked” his posts that targeted specific students. “There is no doubt that these plaintiffs meaningfully contributed to the disruptions at AHS by embracing C.E.’s posts in this fashion” the Court stated.

Notably, the Court did not uphold the discipline of four other students, who had neither approved of nor adopted any content targeting specific individuals within the school. The Court reasoned that “endorsement of speech that is offensive or noxious at a general level differs from endorsement or encouragement of speech that specifically targets individual students.”

This case is not binding in Illinois, however it reflects the increasing trend of courts to recognize the right of school districts to discipline students for certain misconduct that occurs off-campus via social media.