Image depicting a student being suspended for social media content

I.P. v. Tullahoma City Schools: A principal’s ego doesn’t override the First Amendment


Case Overview

Complaint - I.P. v. Tullahoma City Schools

High schools cannot punish a student for satirizing the principal on social media when the satire occurs off campus and does not cause substantial disruption at school. A principal’s pride is not an exception to the First Amendment.

On Aug. 10, 2022, Tullahoma High School’s principal and assistant principal called a 17-year-old rising senior to their office and interrogated him about three images on his personal Instagram. The first image, which the student reposted from his father’s home in Alabama during summer vacation, shows Principal Jason Quick holding a box of fruit and vegetables with the text “🔥My brotha🔥.” The second image, which the student reposted during a family vacation to Italy, depicts Quick as an anime cat with cat ears and whiskers wearing a dress. The third shows Quick’s head superimposed on a hand-drawn cartoon character hugging a cartoon bird. The student intended the images to be tongue-in-cheek commentary satirizing a school administrator he perceived as humorless. 

The memes caused no disruption at school. Nevertheless, Quick and Assistant Principal Crutchfield slapped the student with a three-day, out-of-school suspension. Quick and Crutchfield claimed reliance on a school policy prohibiting students from posting images on social media which “embarrass,” “discredit,” or “humiliate” another student or school staff. What’s more, Tullahoma High School also broadly prohibits social media activity that is “unbecoming of a Wildcat,” the school’s mascot. What those policies mean, specifically and practically, is anyone’s guess. 

Quick and Crutchfield’s actions, along with the school’s vague social media policies, are unconstitutional. If a student’s off-campus online speech does not cause disruption at school, the school cannot censor it. That’s why students have an off-campus First Amendment right, for example, to say “fuck school” on social media. Moreover, the Constitution requires that laws regulating speech provide enough information so parents and students know how to comply. Administrators cannot wield vague social media policies to punish nondisruptive, off-campus satire. On July 19, 2023, FIRE filed a lawsuit on the student’s behalf — and to defend the First Amendment for all America’s students. Teenagers get to use their First Amendment rights, not just learn about them.

Along with the complaint, FIRE filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to remove the suspension from the student’s record and to strike down both social media policies while the case proceeds. After FIRE filed the motion, the school district voluntarily removed both policies from its student handbook. On August 14, 2023, after the school district removed the suspension from the student's record while the case is pending, FIRE withdrew its motion.