LACEY – It’s been more than a year since hundreds of parents showed up to a Lacey Township Board of Education meeting, armed with strong opposition to the district’s suspension of two high school students over photos posted on social media.
Despite the passing of time, the issue still stands today.
On April 10, 2019 the American Civil Liberties Union New Jersey Chapter (ACLU-NJ) and a Hackensack-based law firm filed a suit against the Lacey Township School District, claiming the district violated the First Amendment rights of these two high school students.
The ACLU and the law firm, Pashman Stein Walder Hayden, P.C., filed the civil rights lawsuit on behalf of the students, Cody Conroy and another student identified as H.S., in defense of their First Amendment right “to engage in expressive activities off school grounds during their personal time without being subject to discipline by public school administrators.”
According to a release from the ACLU, the school district crossed a constitutional and disciplinary line when it suspended these two students.
The controversy first began when the boys posted photos of “legally owned” guns to their social media accounts. While the pictures were later taken down and many have not seen them to date, the ACLU stated that “one of the posts had no caption and the other had tongue-in-cheek text: “hot stuff” and “If there’s ever a zombie apocalypse, you know where to go.”
The purpose of the lawsuit is to demand change within the district as well as promote free speech among students.
“I’m filing this suit so that no one at my high school in the future has to feel like the First Amendment wasn’t meant to include them,” student Cody Conroy stated in the release.
The complaint filed by the ACLU and law firm concluded that no substantial or material disruption of school operations had actually occurred.
“The defendants violated Conroy’s and H.S.’s free speech rights by punishing them for purely off-campus speech with no evidence that the speech caused, or would cause, a material and substantial disruption at school,” read the complaint.
Student H.S. recalls being pulled into the principal’s office after the photos were shared via Snapchat, stating “it felt like I had no place where I could truly speak freely.” H.S.’s name is being kept confidential because the student was a minor at the time of the incident.
According to the ACLU, the plaintiffs are seeking the following in reparations:
- A statement in the two students’ permanent records clarifying that their rights were violated by their unconstitutional punishment
- An order for the Lacey Township School District that they will not discipline students for constitutionally protected speech outside of school settings
- Revisions to school policies to establish that the district cannot punish students for constitutionally protected speech that occurs outside of school settings
“The technology for communicating ideas may change, but the fundamental principle remains the same: young people have the right to express themselves, and, with rare exceptions, they shouldn’t face punishment by school administrators for it,” stated CJ Griffin, a partner at the law firm Pashman Stein Walder Hayden, in the release.
While the photos did show guns, which can be a worrisome topic in certain situations, local parents maintain that the images were non-threatening in nature and also had no direct relation to the school or the school district.
“It’s important for school leadership throughout New Jersey to understand that, almost always, their limited authority to punish student speech ends at the schoolhouse gate” said ACLU-NJ Senior Supervising Attorney Alexander Shalom.
Superintendent of Lacey Township Schools Dr. Vanessa Clark did not respond to comment as of press time.