ACLU Files Federal Lawsuit On Behalf of Pennsylvania Student Suspended Over Remark

December 19, 2006 12:00 am

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PITTSBURGH — The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania today filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a former Beaver County student charging that the school district violated the student’s First Amendment rights when it punished him for a single, spontaneous remark he made in response to repeated teasing.

The lawsuit against the New Brighton Area School District was filed in U.S. District Court on behalf of 18-year-old Cory Johnson. Johnson was a senior at New Brighton Area High School when a former Harlem Globetrotter — invited by the school to give a motivational talk to students — called Johnson “Osama bin Laden” in reference to his scruffy goatee. The next day, students and at least one teacher taunted Johnson by calling him Osama bin Laden. Frustrated by the teasing, Johnson said to a friend, “If I were Osama, I would already have pulled a Columbine.” A teacher who overheard the remark reported it to school administrators. They suspended Johnson for 10 days and banned him from his senior prom for the remark, which they claimed was a “terroristic threat.”

“This is yet another example of school officials overreacting and punishing student speech when there is no evidence that Cory’s remark was a threat or that he was a danger to the school,” said Sara Rose, an ACLU of Pennsylvania staff attorney. “While schools need to be vigilant in responding to true threats of violence, overreactions by school administrators victimize and punish innocent students like Cory Johnson.”

Johnson told school administrators who questioned him about the remark that he intended it as a joke. He said that it never occurred to him that anyone would consider the remark threatening, especially given the way in which he said it and that he said it privately to a friend.

“I didn’t say it like I meant it,” Johnson said. “I even laughed after I had made the remark and hugged the girl who I said it to.”

In today’s lawsuit, the ACLU asks the court to rule that the school’s suspension of Johnson violated his free-speech rights under the First Amendment of the Constitution, and order the school district to pay damages to Johnson for the violation.

The case is Johnson v. New Brighton Area School District, et al.

A copy of the complaint is online at:

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