A federal judge has ordered the Albany Unified School District not to take further action against four students threatened with expulsion for “liking” racist images posted on Instagram, citing First Amendment concerns.
U.S. District Judge James Donato of the Northern District of California issued a temporary restraining order on Friday to block the district from imposing additional disciplinary measures on the teenagers. One of them, Kevin Chen, is facing an expulsion hearing on June 1st.
Four Albany High School students landed in hot water last March after they were found to have commented on and/or “liked” a number of racially charged images posted on a private Instagram account.
Some of the posts included pictures of black female students and their basketball coach with nooses around their necks, while others mocked the African American students, comparing them to apes. Other highly offensive images showed a black doll alongside images of a Ku Klux Klan member, a torch and a noose.
According to SF Gate, the school only got wind of the offensive photos after a student took screenshots of them and reported them to administrators.
School officials immediately responded by suspending three students for five days—Philip Shen, Nima Kormi and Michael Bales—all of whom had “liked” the pictures. They also initiated an expulsion proceeding against Kevin Chen.
But the teenagers refused to cave in and brought a lawsuit against the Albany High School administration claiming the school’s punitive actions were both disproportionate to their behavior and violated of their right to free speech.
They also accused the school of “publicly shaming” them in front of other students as part of a so-called “atonement exercise” in which their peers were allowed to hurl insults at them on a make-shift public square.
School officials failed to provide adequate security for the teenagers during the exercise—causing two of them to be hit in the head by a demonstrator—the suit claims.
Donato said the students’ objection to their sentences raised “serious” First Amendment questions ” which do not call for “a one-size fits all approach.”
In the four-page ruling, he also acknowledged the complexities of this case at a time when students “outside of the official school environment (…) are instant messaging, texting, emailing, Twittering, Tumblring, and otherwise communicating electronically.”
In a statement, Superintendent Val Williams said the school district “takes great care to ensure that our students feel safe at school, and we are committed to providing an inclusive and respectful learning environment for all of our students.
She added the district intended to defend itself in court.
The cyber-bullying incident, widely decried as “hate speech,” has deeply affected the small, tight-knit community, located a few kilometers north of Berkeley.
“The pattern of the district and the Albany Police Department sweeping these incidents under the rug, do we need to find one of our children hanging from these trees for people to take this seriously, this is not a joke” one of the victim’s mother told ABC 7 at the time.
According to district records, out of Albany’s 1,231 students at Albany High, 5% of are African Americans.