The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower trial court’s dismissal of a Virginia student’s free speech lawsuit. Jonathan Starbuck sued the Williamsburg James City County School Board (“the Board”) asserting that it violated his constitutional rights when it suspended him for remarks he made regarding the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
The day following the shooting, Starbuck was talking to classmates about the shooting. According to the suit, Starbuck questioned the intent of the shooter, stated the shooter was capable of more harm if he wanted to, noted the possession of explosives, and remarked about the time the shooter was left in the building unchallenged by law enforcement.
A teacher overheard Starbuck’s comments and Starbuck was removed from class for the remainder of the day. The suit alleged that Starbuck was interrogated and that a police officer cleared Starbuck, reporting that there was no threat made or criminal offense. Nevertheless, Starbuck was later suspended for two days. He appealed and the Board upheld the suspension.
The trial court granted the Board’s motion to dismiss, but the Fourth Circuit reversed. According to the appeals court, the Board’s actions in upholding the suspension was the moving force behind the asserted constitutional violation. It was alleged that only because the Board upheld the suspension does it remain on his permanent record. This was enough to raise a valid claim against the Board. According to the appeals court, the Board’s approval of a suspension allegedly imposed to punish protected speech is a decision of the final policymaker of the district that could give rise to liability against the Board.
The case is Starbuck v. Williamsburg James City County School Board, No. 20-2334 (4th Circuit March 15, 2022).
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