A Tennessee high school student is suing his school district and administrators for violating his free speech after he was suspended for three days for posting satirical memes directed at his principal on Instagram.
The federal lawsuit, which was filed Wednesday in the Winchester Division of the Eastern District of Tennessee, does not name the Tullahoma High School student, who is identified only by his initials. The city of Tullahoma is about 75 miles southeast of Nashville.
“This case involves a thin-skinned high school principal who defied the First Amendment and suspended a student for lampooning the principal on the student’s Instagram page despite the fact that the posts caused no disruption to the school,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit names as defendants Tullahoma City Schools Principal Jason Quick and Assistant Principal Derrick Crutchfield, the administrators involved in the student’s suspension.
NBC News could not immediately reach anyone from the school district for comment. A person who answered the phone at Tullahoma High School on Monday said no one from the school is commenting.
The Instagram posts by the student, who is entering his senior year this school year, began during summer break, according to the lawsuit. The first post occurred on May 22, 2022, when the student, identified as IP, posted an image created by another user on IP’s personal Instagram.
The image showed Quick holding a box of fruits and vegetables, a photo originally posted by Quick to his own social media account. Another billboard, the lawsuit said, added the text «My brother» to the image. IP saved that post and added the text «like a sister but not a sister <33".
The post was intended to suggest «a close friendship between IP and Quick and provide a humorous contrast to Quick’s overly serious conduct toward IP and other students,» the lawsuit says.
In another post, from June 9, 2022, IP reposted an image created by another user on his personal Instagram page that showed Quick as an anime cat, complete with whiskers, cat ears, and a dress.
A third post was created on the student’s Instagram account on Aug. 2, 2022, according to the lawsuit. The student posted an image “showing Quick’s head superimposed on a hand-drawn cartoon intended to resemble a character from the online game Among Us. The image also shows a cartoon bird named Mordecai, from Cartoon Network’s Regular Show, shown clinging to Quick’s leg,” the lawsuit said.
All of the images were released while IP was not on school property, the lawsuit says.
Quick used a school policy that prohibits students, «whether at home or at school,» from posting images that would result in the «embarrassment, degradation, or disparagement of any student or staff,» according to the lawsuit. Another policy Quick relied on prohibits students from engaging in «unwildcat» social media activities, the lawsuit says.
“The First Amendment prohibits public school employees from acting as a 24-hour board of censors over student speech. The Supreme Court has been clear: Unless a student’s off-campus speech causes substantial disruption to the school, the job of policing her speech falls to the parents, not the government,” the lawsuit says.
The student was initially told he was suspended for five days on Aug. 10, 2022, eight days after his third post about Quick, according to the lawsuit.
At the time, the student was receiving treatment for clinical depression and anxiety, according to the lawsuit. When the assistant principal told him that he was suspended, the student had a physical reaction, according to the lawsuit.
“After Crutchfield informed IP of the suspension, IP became visibly upset and began to panic about how the suspension would affect his future and standing at Tullahoma High School. IP experienced sweating, shortness of breath, and loss of sensation in both arms,” the lawsuit said.
Both Quick and Crutchfield should have known that suspending the student would cause him «emotional distress,» according to the lawsuit.
A few days later, on August 12, 2022, the student’s mother met with Crutchfield, who told her the suspension was reduced to three days, which Crutchfield said was a more appropriate suspension, according to the lawsuit.
The suspended student has a 3.4 GPA and plays the trombone in the high school band, according to the lawsuit. He was also the senior leader of his Boy Scout troop, according to the lawsuit.
The student is concerned that the suspension, which is on his permanent record, will hurt his ability to earn scholarships and be accepted at top colleges and universities, according to the lawsuit.
The student is seeking a jury trial and wants to stop the district from enforcing the social media policy, claiming it violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments, according to the lawsuit.