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Bullying is the type of conduct that implicates the governmental interest in protecting against the invasion of the rights of others, as described in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District. Thus, schools may restrict such speech even if it does not necessarily cause substantial disruption to the school community more broadly. However, for a school to rely on that basis for restricting student speech, there must be a reasonable basis for the administration to have determined both that the student speech targeted a specific student and that it invaded that student's rights.
A.M., a sophomore student at Cape Elizabeth High School, anonymously posted a sticky note on a mirror in a Cape Elizabeth High School girls' bathroom that stated "THERE'S A RAPIST IN OUR SCHOOL AND YOU KNOW WHO IT IS." The defendants investigated the note after another student brought it to them promptly and they concluded that it constituted bullying under the school's policies, which warranted imposing a three-day suspension on A.M. A.M., through her mother Shael Norris, filed a complaint requesting that the district court enjoin the defendants from suspending her on the grounds that the suspension violated her right to free expression under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as applied to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. A.M., through her mother, also argued that the defendants violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 by retaliating against her for making a complaint. A.M. also moved for a preliminary injunction, which the district court granted based on A.M.'s First Amendment claim. The defendants appealed.
Did the district court err in granting A.M.’s motion for preliminary injunction to prohibit defendants from suspending A.M.?
The Court held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in issuing a preliminary injunction prohibiting defendants from suspending A.M. for anonymously posting a sticky note on a mirror in a girls' bathroom that stated "THERE'S A RAPIST IN OUR SCHOOL AND YOU KNOW WHO IT IS," as defendants failed to demonstrate that they could meet their burden under Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District to justify the restriction of the female student's speech under the First Amendment. The Court further held that the defendants had not shown a causal connection between the sticky note and the bullying of a particular male student, and had not shown it was A.M.’s note which caused any invasion of the male student's rights sufficient to justify the punishment imposed on A.M. for her protected speech.