Two 17-year-old bloggers are going back to Lee’s Summit North High School, a Kansas City federal judge ruled Thursday.
School district authorities had suspended the students, twin brothers, for 180 days earlier this year because of offensive and insensitive blogs and comments posted on their website.
After the judge’s ruling, the boys hugged their lawyers and parents in a tearful courtroom scene.
“The twins are obviously thrilled to return on April 9,” one of their lawyers, Kevin Weakley, said later.
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Jessica Bernard, a lawyer representing the school district, declined to comment, saying she needed to speak with the school board about any appeal options.
Speaking from the bench, Senior U.S. District Judge Howard Sachs issued a preliminary injunction that stayed the remaining 69 days of their suspensions and said they could return to the high school to finish their junior years. The judge said he delayed the boys’ return by two weeks to allow the district time to appeal and give news media interest in the case time to settle down.
Sachs said that at this stage, the boys’ interest in returning to Lee’s Summit North outweighs the district’s concerns of potential new disruptions to educational life at the school. The judge cautioned that he was not deciding the merits of the case, which would include rulings on whether the district had violated the boys’ rights to freedom of speech and due process.
The boys’ identities are not included in the civil court filings because they are minors. The Star has elected not to identify the parents because that would effectively indentify the boys.
The parents sued the district earlier this month, arguing that their sons’ classes at the district’s alternative high school — where they were sent during the suspensions — were not academically rewarding. They also argued that the boys would miss the opportunity to try out for leadership positions with the school’s marching band and drum line.
The school suspended the boys in December after they posted what it considered sexually offensive and racially insensitive remarks on their website, North Press. Nevertheless, much of the discussion at hearings this week focused on a racially inflammatory blog post on their site made by another student without the boys’ knowledge.
In testimony, the boys said they had hoped that the website — which they saw as a place for high school related satire and sarcasm — would be read only by a handful of close friends. They said they had discussed protecting the site with a password, but didn’t know how to do that.
Instead, they had the site hosted in the Netherlands, hoping that would make it more difficult to find. The boys contended that they did much of the work on the blog at home, though they may have told friends about it at school.
Sachs, who said he found some of the blog postings “shocking and obscene” and “grossly offensive,” engaged one of the boys in a discussion during testimony earlier this week.
“Was this (website) intended to allow you and your friends to complain about the school or complain about people at the school?” Sachs asked.
“No,” the boy responded. “It was written so sarcastically that it would seem outlandish.”
Sachs considered that. “Nothing that I’ve seen seems to be lighthearted,” the judge observed. “It all seems very bitter.”
Despite a flurry of interest at the high school about the website, an African-American friend of the twins testified that they would be safe if they returned to the school.
“I knew they didn’t post the rant,” he said.
In his ruling, Sachs appeared to have given that testimony considerable weight.
“I doubt any material disturbance is likely to happen to the twins, perhaps some stares or dirty looks,” Sachs said.
During their testimony, the boys’ parents appeared genuinely appalled by the controversy that their sons had created, but said 180 days punishment was disproportionate to the offense.
“I’m keeping a watchful eye on them, and they have been thoroughly bored for the last few months,” their father testified. “They’re never going to do this again.”
In closing arguments, the district’s attorney argued that schools had a right to discipline the students if they caused a disruption at school. “They’re being disciplined for conduct that they brought on campus and caused a disruption,” Bernard said.
But attorneys representing the boys and their parents said any disruption was minimal and that their writings, while perhaps unkind, were constitutionally protected free speech.
“We know that teenagers are emotional,” said their lawyer Aaron E. Schwartz. “We can’t have a test that says if it’s likely to disturb a teenager, it’s not protected.”
Sachs’ ruling does not settle the case. The district could appeal the injunction to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that the damage to the district in having the boys return is greater than the damage the students would suffer by serving the suspension.
Should the court rule in favor of the school district at the end of the case, the boys still would be required to finish serving their suspensions.