Four students at Albany High School in the San Francisco Bay Area are suing their school district after being suspended for liking and commenting on racist Instagram posts.
They were brought to the attention of school administrators on March 20, according to the lawsuit, and the school suspended all students who had liked, followed, commented on, or posted the images. Albany High School officials could not be reached to confirm how many students in total were suspended. The incident sparked protests at the school soon after.
His attorney, Cate Beekman, told Fusion that he doesn’t intend to file a lawsuit immediately but hasn’t ruled it out.
“My client regrets deeply the things he shared with his friends on his private Instagram account,” she said. “Although my client’s actions were protected by the First Amendment, he is not interested in fighting. Instead he hopes to move forward in a productive way that will help his community heal, and will help other kids understand how the things they say and post on the Internet can hurt people.
According to the school’s website, Albany High School’s student body is approximately 36.5% white, 31.6% Asian/Pacific Islander, 4.6% African-American, and 17% Hispanic/Latino (with 9.7% students being of “2 or more races”).
The four students suing the school district say their engagement with the Instagram posts happened off school grounds and that the school shouldn’t have authority over their activities or what they say outside school. They argue that the school is violating their rights to free speech under both the federal and California state constitution and are suing for damages, but also to have their disciplinary records cleared and to end their suspension from school.
They also allege that they were humiliated and assaulted when the school arranged a “restorative healing session” in which they say they were lined up and other students were allowed to mock and physically attack them. The lawsuit reads:
The plaintiffs and the other suspended students were forced to march through the high school and were lined up in full view of all or most of the student body. School administrators allowed the student body to hurl obscenities, scream profanities, and jeer at the plaintiffs and the other suspended students, who were all not allowed to leave what the school considered an act of ‘atonement’ but was rather a thinly veiled form of public shaming.
“What they did was arguably offensive, but also it’s clearly within protected conduct in the First Amendment...The school simply doesn’t have the authority to regulate what is constitutionally protected free speech,” Alan Beck, an attorney representing the four students, told Fusion.
The parents of the students who were targeted in the Instagram posts say the posts should be considered hate crimes.
“This is a hate crime,” Sade Don-Pedro, the mother of one of the girls targeted, told 5-KPIX. “You don’t have a First Amendment right to promote a hate crime against a group of people based on their skin color.”
DeLisa Branch, the parent of another student depicted in the photos, said “It is not a right to discriminate against anyone.”
The Albany Unified School District did not immediately respond to a request for further comment when contacted by Fusion. But they told local reporters on Thursday that they are reviewing the lawsuit.
“The district takes great care to ensure that our students feel safe at school, and we are committed to providing an inclusive and respectful learning environment for all of our students,” said Albany Unified School District Supt. Valerie Williams in a statement to local reporters.
Update 4:37 P.M.: This post has been updated with comments from the attorney for the student who posted the images.