Education / Schools, Free Speech, Kids, SCOTUS, Supreme Court, Technology

SCOTUS Denies Cert in Teen’s D-Bag First Amendment Suit

On the other hand, It might be cool to have a pirate teacher.

The only things worse than obnoxious teenagers are the parents of obnoxious teenagers who still act like obnoxious teenagers themselves.

It is not hard to imagine an angsty teenager, angry at her school, hitting the ‘net and writing cruel words about a school employee on her blog. It’s also not hard to imagine word getting back to the school, and some unpleasant consequences for the student.

What just doesn’t compute is how that scenario translates to a four-year legal saga culminating in an appeal to the United States Supreme Court. And the lawsuit is spearheaded by the teen’s parents.

At least one mother-daughter team believes a 17-year-old’s right to call her teacher a douche bag online is of utmost First Amendment importance. Apparently the Supreme Court does not…

In 2007, Avery Doninger was the junior class secretary of Lewis S. Mills High School in Connecticut. At a meeting with the administration, she learned that Jamfest, the school’s annual battle of the bands, needed to be rescheduled.

The horror!

Immediately after the meeting, Doninger and three other students sent a mass email from the computer lab – using a parent’s email account – asking students to call the central office to complain. They later sent another message with the superintendent’s email address and phone number.

Principal Karissa Niehoff confronted Doninger about the emails in her office later that day. While Doninger claims Niehoff canceled Jam Fest in that meeting as punishment, Niehoff says she merely scolded Doninger for breaking a school policy that forbids students from using personal email accounts in the computer lab.

They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our garage bands!

That night, Doninger ran home to her computer and her Livejournal account, according to Courthouse News, and wrote in her blog, “jamfest is cancelled due to douchebags in central office.”

(Whenever Doninger gets her first job, I hope she acquaints herself with the new National Labor Relations Board rules about complaining about work tasks. They can protect employees’ complaints in some but not all situations.)

In any case, the Degrassi-style drama continued into the next day:

As phone calls and emails flooded school officials’ offices the next morning, a group of rowdy students gathered outside the administration’s office to protest.

Niehoff and [Superintendent Paula] Schwartz later testified that the mini-uprising made them miss meetings. Jamfest was rescheduled, and Doninger sent students another email stating that the problem had been resolved.

All was well until administrators discovered the angry Livejournal post two weeks later, at which point Niehoff barred Doninger from running for senior class secretary.

The day before the student election, Doninger and her mother spoke to a local reporter at a TV news station about the incident. Later that day, during a civics class, one of Doninger’s supporters was sent to the principal’s office for shouting, “Everybody watch the news at 6.”

On election day, Niehoff forbade students from wearing “Vote for Avery” T-shirts to a school assembly.

Though Doninger won the election as a write-in candidate, administrators refused to recognize the results.

Instead of teaching her daughter that words have real power, that actions have consequences, or shoot, simply that being senior class secretary maybe isn’t a huge deal, Avery’s mother helped her sue the school for an injunction regarding the election. I know privacy and self-censorship are dead and buried, but what a lesson to teach her daughter!

The suit was in state court, then federal district court. The Second Circuit heard the case in 2008. Above the Law briefly wrote about the case when it hit the Second Circuit. When Avery graduated, the injunction became moot, so she and mommy dearest demanded monetary damages for “alleged constitutional violations,” according to Courthouse News.

All the way up to the Supreme Court. Do I hear a Winklevossian wind blowing through Connecticut?

Doninger got denied cert yesterday. Seeing as the Nine are dealing with fleeting expletives, GPS police searches, and probably Obamacare, the news is about as surprising as a car with four wheels.

The only downside? We have to keep waiting for SCOTUS to use “douche bag” in an opinion.

End of the Road for Teen Who Wrote About D-Bags [Courthouse News Service]

Christopher Danzig is a writer in Oakland, California. He previously covered legal technology for InsideCounsel magazine. Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisdanzig or email him at You can read more of his work at

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