Free Speech at School: When Bathroom Graffiti Goes to the Courts

Updated: Jul 23, 2020

Recently a Federal District Court Judge issued a temporary stay on the suspension of a student in Maine. The student posted anonymous notes in the girls’ bathroom stating, “There’s a rapist in our school and you know who it is.” The posted notes did not include the identity of any individuals and the student who posted the notes did not intend to identify a particular person. Instead, the student, Aela Mansmann, posted the notes for her peers to see because she believed the school was not properly addressing multiple complaints of sexual harassment.

After the fliers were posted, a male student self-identified as a target of the notes and reported to the school that he felt he was being bullied. The male student missed a few days from school and stated he felt ostracized by his peers. The school investigated the male student’s complaint and suspended Ms. Mansmann for bullying because she posted the notes.

Ms. Mansmann filed for a preliminary injunction to stay the suspension while a lawsuit proceeded to determine the validity of the school’s decision. The lawsuit centers on whether Ms. Mansmann was exercising her right to free speech. The judge granted the temporary stay, finding that Ms. Mansmann would likely succeed on the merits of her lawsuit because she was making a political statement. The judge stated that the notes were, “neither frivolous nor fabricated, took place within the limited confines of the girls’ bathroom, related to a matter of concern to the young women who might enter the bathroom and receive the message, and [were] not disruptive of school discipline.”

Granting a preliminary injunction is rare.

A party asking for a preliminary injunction must present evidence that:

  1. They are likely to succeed on the merits of the case.

  2. There will be irreparable harm if the injunction is not granted.

  3. The equities lean towards the party bringing the lawsuit.

  4. The injunction serves the public interest. The court found that Ms. Mansmann met her burden in showing these four elements.

Ms. Mansmann argued that her conduct was political speech protected by the First Amendment. She was concerned about how her school was handling complaints of sexual harassment and sought to express her political opinion. The school argued that the speech was defamatory because the note targeted an individual, the male student who self-identified as the subject of the note. The court stated that this was a factual dispute, and that the suggestion that the notes might be defamatory was not enough to undermine a finding that Ms. Mansmann would likely succeed on the merits of her case.

Why did the court find that Ms. Mansmann would likely succeed on the merits of her case?

The judge made this decision because Ms. Mansmann had engaged in constitutionally protected conduct which was a substantial or motivating factor in the adverse action implemented by the defendant. In other words, Ms. Mansmann was suspended for engaging in constitutionally protected free speech. While the evidence presented showed that the notes might be defamatory, it clearly showed that the notes were a political statement.

Whether a student’s conduct at school is constitutionally protected speech or not is a difficult question that must be examined in relation to other court cases related to student speech.

If you or a loved one is impacted by student speech and want to know how the court will view your case, we can help.

Contact MGL

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