A Tennessee high school student is suing his school district and administrators for violating his freedom of speech after he was suspended for three days for posting satirical memes directed at his principal on Instagram.
The federal lawsuit, which was filed Wednesday in the Eastern District of Tennessee Winchester Division, does not name the student from Tullahoma High School, who is only identified through initials. The city of Tullahoma is about 75 miles southeast of Nashville.
“This case is about a thin-skinned high school principal defying the First Amendment and suspending a student for lampooning the principal on the student’s Instagram page even though the posts caused no disruption at school,” the suit said.
The lawsuit names as defendants Tullahoma City Schools, Principal Jason Quick and Vice Principal Derrick Crutchfield, the administrators involved in the student’s suspension.
No one with the school district could be immediately reached by NBC News for comment. A person who picked up the phone at Tullahoma High School on Monday said no one with the school is commenting.
Attorney Conor Fitzpatrick represents the student who was suspended. He said Monday: “We believe that the suspension of the student violated the First Amendment. These were playful Instagram memes. They did not contain any threats. They did not contain any bad language. They were simply gently satirizing a school administrator who was perceived as being a bit overly serious.”
"The reason we’re pursuing this case is we want to stand up for the free speech rights of students not just in Tullahoma, but around the country to make their voices heard," Fitzpatrick said.
The Instagram posts by the student, who is entering his senior year this school year, began during summer vacation, the lawsuit said. The first post occurred on May 22, 2022, when the student, identified as I.P., posted an image created by another user to I.P.’s personal Instagram.
The image showed Quick holding a box of fruit and vegetables, a photo originally posted by Quick to his own social media account. Another poster, the suit said, added text “My brotha” to the image. I.P. saved that post and added text “like a sister but not a sister <33.”
The post was meant to suggest “a close friendship between I.P. and Quick and to provide a humorous contrast to Quick’s overly serious demeanor towards I.P. and other students,” the lawsuit said.
In another post, from June 9, 2022, I.P. reposted an image created by another user to his personal Instagram page showing Quick as an anime cat, with whiskers, cat ears and wearing a dress.
A third post on the student’s Instagram account was created on August 2, 2022, the lawsuit said. The student posted an image “showing Quick’s head superimposed on a hand-drawn cartoon meant to resemble a character from the online game Among Us. The image also shows a cartoon bird named Mordecai, from the Cartoon Network series Regular Show, shown clinging to Quick’s leg,” the suit said.
All of the images were posted while I.P. was not on school property, the suit says.
Quick used a school policy which prohibits students, “whether at home or school,” from posting pictures that result in “the embarrassment, demeaning, or discrediting of any student or staff,” according to the lawsuit. Another policy Quick relied on prohibits students from engaging in social media activity “unbecoming of a Wildcat,” the lawsuit said.
“The First Amendment bars public school employees from acting as a round-the-clock board of censors over student expression. The Supreme Court has been clear: Unless a student’s off-campus expression causes a substantial disruption at school, the job of policing their speech falls to parents, not the government,” the suit said.
The student was initially told he was suspended for five days on Aug. 10, 2022, eight days after his third post about Quick, the suit said.
At the time, the student was receiving treatment for clinical depression and anxiety, the lawsuit said. When the vice principal told him he was suspended, the student had a physical reaction, according to the lawsuit.
“After Crutchfield informed I.P. about the suspension, I.P. became visibly upset and started panicking about how the suspension would affect his future and his standing at Tullahoma High School. I.P. experienced sweating, shortness of breath, and lost feeling in both arms,” the suit said.
Both Quick and Crutchfield should have known that suspending the student would cause him “emotional distress,” according to the lawsuit.
A few days later, on Aug. 12, 2022, the student’s mom met with Crutchfield, who told her the suspension was reduced to three days, which Crutchfield said was a more appropriate suspension, the suit said.
The suspended student carries a 3.4 GPA, and plays trombone in the high school band, the suit said. He was also the senior leader of his Boy Scout troop, according to the lawsuit.
The student is concerned the suspension, which is on his permanent record, will impair his ability to attain scholarships and be accepted into top colleges and universities, the suit said.
The student seeks a jury trial and wants to strop the district from enforcing the social media policy, declaring it violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments, the lawsuit said.