Public middle school officials in Talladega County, Alabama, did not violate the First Amendment when they punished a student for writing “Trump 2016” on his homeroom teacher’s whiteboard, a federal district court has ruled. The district court emphasized that the punishment did not relate to any particular political viewpoint.
The controversy occurred at Childersburg Middle School around the time of the presidential election of 2016. Assistant Principal Michael Bynum heard reports of disruptions at other schools over the election. He also heard a report that students at his school were “wound up in the halls and were very loud and rowdy in the halls.”
As a result, Bynum announced a new school rule forbidding any discussion of the election during school except for history classes. T.S., an eighth-grade student, went into his homeroom teacher’s classroom and wrote “Trump 2016” on her whiteboard. He then argued with about 15 other students, many of whom objected to the message.
Because of this act, Bynum paddled T.S. Later, T.S. filed a federal lawsuit, alleging a violation of his First Amendment free-speech rights and rights to due process. Regarding the First Amendment claim, Annemarie Carney Axon, U.S. District Court judge for the Northern District of Alabama, ruled that school officials were entitled to qualified immunity — a doctrine that protects government officials from liability unless they violate clearly established constitutional rights.
Axon determined that T.S.’s claim must be analyzed under the leading U.S. Supreme Court First Amendment decision, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969). Under the Tinker standard, public school officials can censor student speech if they can reasonably forecast that the student speech will cause a substantial disruption of school activities or invade the rights of others.
Judge Axon noted that Bynum “faced reports of actual disruption that the election caused in other schools and at Childersburg Middle School.” The judge also noted that the policy did not single out any particular political viewpoint.
As a result, the judge ruled that Bynum and other school officials were entitled to qualified immunity, which protects government officials from liability unless they violated clearly established constitutional law principles.
David L. Hudson Jr. is a First Amendment Fellow at the Freedom Forum Institute, and a law professor at Belmont University who publishes widely on First Amendment topics. He is the author of a 12-lecture audio course on the First Amendment titled “Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment” (Now You Know Media, 2018). He also is the author of many First Amendment books, including “The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech” (Thomson Reuters, 2012) and “Freedom of Speech: Documents Decoded” (ABC-CLIO, 2017).