Supreme Court Ends Student’s Challenge to Discipline Over Social Media Post

The U.S. Supreme Court has denied an appeal over dismissal of a student’s lawsuit stemming from an off-campus social media post that resulted in the student suspension from the football team. After a heated football game, the quarterback of one team sent a Snapchat video to a student of the opposing school using the N-word and stating that he would put him in the hospital. After the video circulated among other students and on Twitter, it attracted media attention and was reported to school officials.

The school principal and football coach suspended the student from the football team for two games and removed him as captain. The student posted an apology, which the principal allegedly demanded that he retract. The school district issued its own statement that the student had posted a racially charged statement to taunt another athlete and that he would face disciplinary consequences.

The parents requested that the district rescind its statement, but the district refused. It was alleged that NCAA suspended recruitment efforts due to the district’s statement. The parents continued to try to resolve the issue and informed the district they would pursue legal remedies if the matter remained unresolved after September 18, 2020.

On September 17, 2020, the day before the parents requested resolution of that issue, a canine unit identified the student’s car in an allegedly random drug search. Officials discovered marijuana and the student maintained that it belonged to his brother who shared the vehicle. The student was assigned to the disciplinary alternative education program as a result.

Suit was filed in the state district court in Fort Bend County, Texas. The student alleged (1) violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983; (2) violations of his procedural and substantive due process rights; and (3) various state law claims, including defamation, spoliation, and civil conspiracy. The case was removed to federal court and the Defendants sought dismissal. The court dismissed the suit and the student appealed.

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit Court of appeals held that the school principal had qualified immunity from the claim he violated the First Amendment by disciplining the student for off-campus speech. The school board could not be held liable under § 1983 for alleged violations of student’s First Amendment free speech rights.

According to the appeals court, the student also failed to claim that the code of conduct for student athletes was unconstitutionally overbroad. Additionally, the student did not have a protected property or liberty interest in being on the school’s football team or being team captain. Finally, the student was not deprived of a protected property or liberty interest when he was placed in the alternative education program after school district determined he had possessed marijuana. The case is McClelland v. Katy Indep. Sch. Dist., 63 F.4th 996 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, 144 S. Ct. 348 (2023), reh’g denied, No. 23-229, 2024 WL 72438 (U.S. Jan. 8, 2024).

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