Student wins right to sue principals

A federal appeals court ruled that a high school student, who was suspended for refusing to put away a small confederate flag, may sue two assistant principals for violating his First Amendment right to free-expression. This decision reinforces other court decisions that held that government employees, including school officials, can be held responsible when they violate a citizen’s constitutional rights.More than 3 years ago, Wayne Denno’s local school board gave him a nine-day suspension after he refused to put away a 4-inch rebel flag, which he showed to his friends in the school courtyard. Demo and his mother, Linda, fought back by suing the local school board and his high school’s two assistant principals claiming that they had violated his free-speech rights.

The only disruption was probably from the shocked administrators who could not believe that a student would actually assert his constitutional rights.

The school board contends that Demo did not receive the suspension for displaying the flag. Instead, they said he incited students by parading the flag during lunch, disobeyed administrators and caused a disruption. Denno claims that he quietly showed the flag while discussing his interest in the Civil War. The only disruption was probably from the shocked administrators who could not believe that a student would actually assert his constitutional rights.

Denno initially lost at least two cases. The first judge decided that the assistant principals could not be held liable because they are protected in their roles as government officials. Then this past May, a U.S. District Judge sided with the district and dismissed his case.

The Dennos appealed both verdicts and recently won a significant victory in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeal in Atlanta, which has jurisdiction over Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. The court in a 2-1 decision, ruled that Denno may sue his assistant principals even though they are government officials, who are usually protected from lawsuits. However, the court did dismiss the case against the school board.

soldier with flagThis verdict, which allows Denno’s case to proceed, has presumably affected the treatment of students throughout the 11th Circuits Jurisdiction (Alabama, Florida, and Georgia) and possibly the rest of the nation.

“It’s a significant decision, because it could provide guidance to school administrators and school boards about the areas of the law we deal with every day — student discipline and free speech,” said Ned Julian, Seminole County School Board attorney.

Denno has already won because now, in many instances, when school officials give out suspensions and other punishments, they will have to worry about lawsuits that could conceivably cost them tens of thousands of dollars. This concern will make them think twice when you or any other Libertarian Rockstar says to a principal, “If you suspend me, I’ll sue the city, the school board, and YOU.”

To ensure that you don’t make an idle threat, you should understand that fighting for your civil rights is a patient, demanding task. By refusing to give up her bus seat, Rosa Parks embarked on a yearlong boycott of the Montgomery Bus Company that was filled with days of walking. Denno’s battle began more than three years ago and his is far from the end.

These activists not only drew a line in the sand, they also proved that they were prepared to defend that line. You are equally capable of leading a long civil rights struggle that will protect your rights and those of teenagers across the country. You might also end up driving your principal’s new car.

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