Littleton High School junior Bryan Lopez, who was suspended from Littleton High School for posting satirical commentary about the school on the internet, is now back in school after ACLU attorneys reached an agreement with school district officials on Monday evening. The agreement averted a federal court First Amendment lawsuit that ACLU attorneys were prepared to file on Lopez’s behalf on Tuesday morning.
“I am pleased that Littleton school officials were willing to resolve this dispute without a lawsuit,” said Hugh Gottschalk, an ACLU cooperating attorney whose firm worked over the 3-day weekend on Mr. Lopez’s case. “A student’s right of expression is protected by the First Amendment. School authorities have some ability to regulate students’ expressive activities on school grounds and at school-related functions. But school authorities do not have the right to impose discipline for statements that students make off campus, especially when, as in this case, those statements do not cause any material disruption of the educational process.”
“Mr. Lopez used his home computer to post his commentary on the web site MySpace.com on February 7,” explained Mark Silverstein, ACLU Legal Director. The message contained satirical commentary about the poor physical condition of Littleton High School, the behavior and demographics of students and staff, the perceived racial biases of teachers and administrators, and the poor quality of the resources available to students.”
Once posted, the commentary was not accessible to students from any school computers, because the school’s internet filters block access to MySpace.com. Nor was the commentary accessible to the general public; it was available only to specific persons to whom Mr. Lopez had provided a password. “Apparently one of Mr. Lopez’s classmates accessed the website, copied the commentary, and then re-posted it on his own website,” Silverstein said.
A couple days later, Littleton High School administrators obtained a copy of Mr. Lopez’s satirical commentary. On February 10, they suspended him for five days on the basis of a school policy that forbids students from engaging in conduct, either on campus or off-campus, “that is detrimental to the welfare or safety of other students or district employees.” The school superintendent then added an additional 10 days to the suspension, to give administrators additional time to decide whether to begin proceedings to expel Mr. Lopez from school. He missed six days of school before the ACLU and the school district resolved the controversy.
“The school district deserves credit for agreeing to resolve this issue promptly, allow Mr. Lopez back in school, and remove all mention of the suspension from our client’s school record,” Silverstein said. “Although the ACLU had a lawsuit prepared to file on Tuesday morning, our client risked missing even more days of classes while we waited for the court to rule.”