Law School Case Brief
S. J. W. v. Lee's Summit R-7 Sch. Dist. - 696 F.3d 771 (8th Cir. 2012)
It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate. However, in the school environment, some speech is not protected by the First Amendment, and school officials may lawfully punish some forms of unprotected student speech. Conduct by a student, in class or out of it, which for any reason, whether it stems from time, place, or type of behavior, materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others, is not immunized by the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech. Thus, student speech that causes a substantial disruption is not protected.
The Lee's Summit R-7 School District (School District) issued 180-day suspensions to twin brothers Steven and Sean Wilson (Wilsons) on January 11, 2012 for disruption caused by a website the Wilsons created. The Wilsons filed suit against the School District on March 6, 2012, alleging, along with other claims, that the School District violated their rights to free speech. The District Court conducted a preliminary injunction hearing on March 19, 21, and 22, 2012. At the hearing, the Wilsons testified they intended the posts on the website to be satirical rather than serious. The District Court granted the Wilsons' Motion for a Preliminary Injunction in an oral ruling and subsequently issued a written order to the same effect. The District Court concluded an injunction posed no material harm to the School District. The School District appealed the preliminary injunction, arguing that the District Court failed to make sufficient findings of irreparable harm and failed to make an appropriate finding of the Wilsons' likelihood of success.
Did the district court err in granting preliminary injunction in favor of the students?
The Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that the students were unlikely to succeed on the merits under the relevant caselaw, and the district court's findings did not establish sufficient irreparable harm to the students to justify a preliminary injunction. Speech by a student, in class or out of it, that caused a substantial disruption to the educational environment was not protected under the First Amendment. The students were unlikely to succeed on the merits because the district court found that the students' posts on the website caused a substantial disruption. The Court ruled that the harms identified by the district court did not constitute irreparable harm that was sufficient to sustain a preliminary injunction. The students were not at risk of any real academic harm, much less any certain and great harm that could be prevented by an injunction. Any future harm to the students' careers by their inability to try out for the school band during their suspension was speculative.
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