Teen Suspended for Mocking Principal Sues

Tennessee student says free speech rights were violated after Instagram posts made fun of school
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 24, 2023 10:35 AM CDT
Teen Suspended for Mocking Principal Sues
Stock photo.   (Getty Images/mapo)

It's not unusual for students to poke fun of teachers or administrators, but one high school principal who suspended a teen for doing so is now on the receiving end of a First Amendment lawsuit. The Washington Post reports on the complaint filed Wednesday in the US District Court for Eastern Tennessee by a 17-year-old known in court documents as "IP," who put up a series of Instagram posts that mocked Jason Quick, his "overly serious" principal at Tullahoma High School, according to the student. In his suit against Quick, Tullahoma City Schools, and Assistant Principal Derrick Crutchfield, filed with help from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, the teen acknowledges that between May and August of last year, he posted three memes on his personal Instagram account making fun of Quick.

The first meme showed a photo of Quick holding a box of fruits and vegetables that Quick had had on his own social media, with the teen adding the caption "like a sister but not a sister," per the complaint. The second meme featured Quick as an anime cat wearing a dress, while the third showed Quick's head placed on top of a cartoon character's body (see all three at the Tennessean). The posts were made while the student was outside of school, but they ended up earning him a five-day suspension, as announced to him on Aug. 10 by Crutchfield. The teen's offense: violating school policy against using "an unauthorized or misrepresented photograph, video, or recording for the purpose of embarrassing, demeaning, or discrediting the reputation of any student or staff," as well as using "social media ... unbecoming of a Wildcat."

The suspension was eventually reduced to three days, but the teen, now a rising senior, wants it expunged from his record, claiming it violates his free speech rights. The Post and Tennessean cite a 2021 Supreme Court case that ruled students' speech away from school can only be policed by their parents, unless it causes a "substantial disruption" at school. "People have been making fun of their principal and their teachers on their own time, away from school as long as there have been schools," foundation attorney Conor Fitzpatrick tells WKRN. The lawyer adds that the school's policy is too vague, as it "fails to provide parents and students sufficient information to know what is restricted or required of them," per the Post. A school district spokesperson tells WKRN the district can't comment "on pending litigation." Quick is said to have left the district last month, per the Tennessean. (More Tennessee stories.)

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