PITTSBURGH - The ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit today in federal court on behalf of a former New Brighton Area School District student because the school district punished him for a single, spontaneous remark he made to a friend in response to repeated teasing that the district had failed to curb. The suit charges that the school district violated the student's First Amendment free speech rights.
The student, Cory Johnson, was a senior at New Brighton Area High School in Beaver County when a former Harlem Globetrotter - invited by the school to give a motivational talk to students - referred to Cory as the terrorist Osama bin Laden during his April 25, 2006, presentation. The next day, students - and even a teacher - taunted Cory by calling him Osama bin Laden. Frustrated by the teasing, Cory said to a friend, "If I were Osama, I would already have pulled a Columbine." A teacher who overheard Cory's remark reported it to school administrators. They suspended Cory for 10 days and banned him from his senior prom for the remark, which they claimed was a "terroristic threat."
"This is yet another example of school officials overreacting and punishing student speech when there is no evidence that Cory's remark was a threat or that he was a danger to the school," said Sara Rose, an ACLU of Pennsylvania staff attorney. "While schools need to be vigilant in responding to true threats of violence, overreactions - like New Brighton's - victimize and injure innocent students like Cory Johnson."
Cory told school administrators who questioned him about the remark that he intended it as a joke. He said that it never occurred to him that anyone would consider the remark threatening, especially given the way in which he said it and that he said it privately to a friend.
"I didn't say it like I meant it," Cory said, adding that he "even laughed after I had made the remark and hugged the girl who I said it to."
The lawsuit, which was filed today in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, asks the court to rule that the school's suspension of Cory violated his First Amendment free speech rights and order the school district to pay damages to Cory for the injury he suffered as a result of the violation. The case is Johnson v. New Brighton Area School District, et al. A copy of the complaint can be found here.