DETROIT — In a case with implications throughout the state, a federal judge has struck down the Michigan “verbal assault” law as violating the free speech rights of students. The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan challenged the law on behalf of Alex Smith, an honor student at Mt. Pleasant High School who was suspended for committing a “verbal assault” by writing a parody of the school’s tardy policy.
“Unfortunately, some schools have taken these zero tolerance policies to the extreme,” said Kary Moss, ACLU of Michigan Executive Director. “We’re pleased that the court has recognized that the statute was so vague and broad as to seriously curtail students’ speech rights.”
The 1999 law at issue required all school districts in the state to suspend or expel students for committing a “verbal assault.” However, the law did not define what constituted a “verbal assault.” Mt. Pleasant adopted a policy requiring a 10-day suspension of all students who, among other things, “assault the dignity of a person.”
U.S. District Court Judge David M. Lawson held that the verbal assault law and policy were “unconstitutionally overbroad and vague,” and therefore could not be enforced. The judge wrote that while the state law and the Mt. Pleasant school district policy may have had a laudable purpose, they could not be used to punish criticism that is protected by the First Amendment such as “speech that questions the wisdom or judgment of school administrators and their policies.” Judge Lawson further stated that “the mere fact that someone might take offense at the content of speech is not sufficient justification for prohibiting it.”
Alex Smith, a junior at the high school in 2000 when he wrote the parody, is now a student at Michigan State University. He said, "Although I won't benefit directly from the court’s decision because I'm in college now, I feel vindicated because the law was struck down. Students will be able to freely discuss politics and school policies in school without fear of being charged with verbal assault."
“Even laws enacted with the best intentions must be judged by standards of the First Amendment,” said Richard Landau, the ACLU of Michigan cooperating attorney who argued the case. “School districts across the state should reexamine their policies in light of this opinion to make certain they don’t run afoul of the Constitution.”
In addition to Landau, other attorneys representing Smith were Bradley Smith, Thomas Bromell and Michael J. Steinberg.
Read the decision here.