- A Tennessee high school student, backed by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, sued his school after being suspended for posting satirical Instagram memes while off campus.
- The memes, none of which caused any disruption at school, depicted the principal holding a box of vegetables, as an anime cat wearing a dress, and as a cartoon character being hugged by a cartoon bird.
- FIRE’s lawsuit seeks to cement Supreme Court law that schools cannot punish students for nondisruptive, private, off-campus speech.
TULLAHOMA, Tenn., July 19, 2023 — In one Tennessee school district, kids can’t be kids.
Today, a 17-year-old rising senior represented by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression sued his Tennessee public high school after the principal suspended him for posting memes lampooning the principal for being overly serious.
“The First Amendment bars public school employees from acting as a 24/7 board of censors,” said FIRE attorney Conor Fitzpatrick. “As long as a student’s posts do not substantially disrupt school, what teens post on social media on their own time is between them and their parents, not the government.”
The First Amendment bars public schools from acting as round-the-clock censors. But on Aug. 10, 2022, Tullahoma High School’s principal and assistant principal called the student to their office and interrogated him about three memes he posted to Instagram off school grounds and outside school hours.
The first meme shows Principal Jason Quick holding a box of vegetables with the caption, “My brotha.” The second 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 being hugged by a cartoon bird. The student intended the images to be tongue-in-cheek commentary, gently ribbing a school administrator he perceived as humorless.
The memes caused no disruption at school.
Nevertheless, Quick slapped the student with a three-day out-of-school suspension. Quick and Assistant Principal Derrick 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. But the Supreme Court held in 2021 that 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 to say “fuck school” on social media.
Tullahoma High School also prohibits social media activity that is “unbecoming of a Wildcat,” the school’s mascot. What that means, specifically and practically, is anyone’s guess. The Constitution, however, requires laws regulating speech to provide enough information so parents and students know how to comply.
“Administrators cannot wield vague social media policies to punish nondisruptive, off-campus satire,” said FIRE attorney Harrison Rosenthal. “Principal Quick suspended a student over playful memes — but he can’t suspend the First Amendment.”
FIRE’s lawsuit names Tullahoma City Schools, Quick, and Crutchfield as defendants and seeks to remove the suspension from the student’s record and halt enforcement of the school’s vague policies.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought — the most essential qualities of liberty. FIRE educates Americans about the importance of these inalienable rights, promotes a culture of respect for these rights, and provides the means to preserve them.
FIRE is assisted in this case by local counsel Darrick O’Dell of Spicer Rudstrom PLLC.
Katie Kortepeter, Communications Campaign Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org