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Students' First Amendment Rights Don't Cover Crayon-Drawn Threats

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals takes crayons seriously.

The New York-based appellate court ruled this week that the Valley Central School District did not violate a 10-year-old’s First Amendment rights when he was suspended for six days for expressing a “wish” for violence towards his school and teachers in a classroom drawing assignment.

In 2007, B.C.'s science teacher told students to fill in a picture of an astronaut and write various things in various sections of the astronaut. The students were instructed to write a "wish" in the left leg of the astronaut. In that spot, B.C. indicated his "wish" was to "blow up the school with the teachers in it," reports Education Week.

B.C. told several of his classroom neighbors what he wrote. Most laughed. One of the students, however, tattled, leading to B.C.'s suspension and this lawsuit.

(Sidebar: Apparently the Valley Central School District thinks that crayon-drawn threats compromise the integrity of a school. We think wasting time with astronaut/wish coloring projects in a fifth-grade science class -- instead of actually teaching science -- is a bigger threat, but what do we know?)

B.C.'s parents, William and Margaret Cuff, sued the school district on his behalf, alleging that the district violated his First Amendment rights by punishing him for his astronaut "wish." Judge Jed Rakoff -- he of SEC-settlements-must-include-an-admission-of-fault fame -- dismissed the Cuffs' complaint.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, ruling that it didn't matter that B.C. lacked intent and capacity to carry his wish. Since B.C. shared his "wish" with other classmates --like 10-year-olds are wont to do -- the court said that "school administrators might reasonably fear that, if permitted, other students might well be tempted to copy, or escalate, B.C.'s conduct."

The Supreme Court noted in Wood v. Strickland "it is not the role of the federal courts to set aside decisions of school administrators which the court may view as lacking a basis in wisdom or compassion," so the courts should afford schools authorities "the greatest deference" in disciplinary matters.

The courts allow schools to curtail students' First Amendment rights, particularly when students are expressing violent thoughts. Before you file a lawsuit for angry parents who want justice for lost freedom of expression, make sure your clients have realistic expectations about judicial deference to school decisions.

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