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Lawsuits & Litigation

Tennessee High School Student Suspended for Posting Instagram Memes Files Lawsuit

— July 28, 2023

Attorneys for the student claim that Tullahoma educators suspended him for posting “gentle” memes about a principal on his private Instagram.

A Tennessee high school student has filed a lawsuit claiming that Tullahoma education officials violated his constitutional rights after he was suspended for posting and circulating “satirical” memes about the principal.

According to NBC News, the federal lawsuit was filed earlier this week in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee’s Winchester Division.

The complaint does name or identify the Tullahoma High School student behind the lawsuit, who is instead referred to only by his initials.

Tullahoma, notes NBC News, is about 75 miles southeast of Nashville.

“This case is about a thin-skinned high school principal defying the First Amendment and suspending a student for lampooning the principal on the student’s Instagram page, even though the posts caused no disruption at school,” the lawsuit alleges.

The complaint lists several defendants, including the following:

  • Tullahoma City Schools;
  • Tullahoma High School Principal Jason Quick; and
  • Tullahoma High School Vice Principal Derrick Crutchfield.

Both Quick and Crutchfield are named as defendants because they were purportedly “involved in” the student’s three-day suspension.

Conor Fitzpatrick, an attorney for the student, said that his client’s Instagram posts contained no threats or offensive language.

“We believe that the suspension of the student violated the First Amendment. These were playful Instagram memes,” Fitzpatrick said. “They did not contain any threats. They did not contain any bad language.”

“They were simply gently satirizing a school administrator who was perceived as being a bit overly serious,” the attorney added.

“The reason we’re pursuing this case is we want to stand up for the free speech rights of students not just in Tullahoma, but around the country, to make their voices heard,” he said.

NBC News notes that the Instagram posts at-issue first began appearing in May of 2022, after school had been released and students were already on their summer vacation.

The first image, adds NBC, showed Quick holding a box of fruit and vegetables—a photograph that Quick himself had originally uploaded to social media.

Another poster added text saying “my brotha,” which the plaintiff—I.P.—further amended to say, “like a sister but not a sister <33.”

The post, Fitzpatrick said, was meant to suggest a “close relationship between I.P. and Quick and to provide a humorous contrast to Quick’s overly serious demeanor toward I.P. and other students.”

A gavel. Image via Wikimedia Commons via Flickr/user: Brian Turner. (CCA-BY-2.0).

Less than a month later, in early June, I.P. reposted an image created by another Instagram user, which showed Quick as an anime cat—complete with whiskers, pointed ears, and clad in a women’s dress.

The third post detailed was made in August, and showed “Quick’s head superimposed on a hand-drawn cartoon meant to resemble a character from the online game Among Us.”

“The image also shows a cartoon bird named Mordecai, from the Cartoon Network series Regular Show, shown clinging to Quick’s leg,” the lawsuit adds.

All of the images, the complaint notes, were posted when I.P. was either at home or otherwise not present on school premises.

Quick justified I.P.’s suspension by referring to a school policy that prohibits students, “whether at home or school,” from posting pictures that result in “the embarrassment, demeaning, or discrediting of any student or staff.”

However, I.P.’s attorney says that school administrators are not necessarily entitled to “police” students’ speech outside of school, unless such speech poses an in-school disruption.

“The First Amendment bars public school employees from acting as a round-the-clock board of censors over student expression,” the lawsuit alleges. The Supreme Court has been clear: Unless a student’s off-campus expression causes a substantial disruption at school, the job of policing their speech falls to parents, not the government.”

The lawsuit characterizes I.P. as a reasonably good student with slightly above-average grades.

I.P., adds NBC News, also plays trombone in the high school band and is a senior leader in a local Boy Scout troop.

After finding out that he had been suspended for three days, I.P. said that he began panicking and “experienced sweating, shortness of breath, and lost feeling in both arms.”

The lawsuit seeks a jury trial and has asked a court to order Tullahoma City Schools from continuing to enforce its social media policy.


A Student Sues After Suspension for Mocking Principal on Instagram

Tennessee student suspended over Instagram memes about principal sues school district and officials

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