MT. PLEASANT — The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a lawsuit today in federal court against the Mt. Pleasant Public Schools on behalf of an honor student who was suspended for writing a humorous commentary criticizing his school’s new tardy policy.
“This case is another example how zero tolerance laws are being used to squelch free expression,” said Kary Moss, executive director of the Michigan ACLU. “Schools should be teaching students about the Constitution, not punishing them for exercising their rights.”
Alex Smith, an A-student at Mt. Pleasant High School, was suspended in October, 2000, after he privately read his parody about the tardy policy to a small group of friends in the cafeteria. The commentary, written at home, criticized the policy, the process leading to its adoption, and several teachers and administrators charged with its enforcement.
“I never intended for the principal to see or hear it. It was meant as a joke and I’m truly sorry that people were offended,” Alex said. He has been genuinely cooperative and remorseful throughout this ordeal and delivered written apologies to each of the school personnel he mentioned.
Nevertheless, Alex was suspended for ten days for committing a “verbal assault” because he allegedly assaulted “the dignity of a person.” Although state law requires that all districts suspend students for committing “verbal assaults,” the law leaves it up to the school to define the term. Mt. Pleasant appears to be the only school district to define “verbal assault” to include assaults on the dignity of a person.
“School administrators cannot suspend students and mar their school records for expressing their social and political views -- even if the expression is critical of the school administration,” said ACLU Cooperating Attorney Richard Landau. “The Mt. Pleasant policy casts too broad a net and permits the school to punish good students for speech that is protected by the First Amendment.”
The ACLU lawsuit asks the court to declare the Mt. Pleasant verbal assault policy and the state verbal assault law unconstitutional.