High School Can’t Expel Student for Sharing Memes in Private Snapchat Conversation–JS v. Manheim Township School District

During downtime at home, high schoolers JS and “Student 1” gossiped about their peer “Student 2” via private Snapchat. JS thought Student 2 looked like a school shooter based on his hair and his wearing a “Cannibal Corpse” t-shirt. (TIL: Cannibal Corpse is a death metal band from the 1990s). As part of the Snapchat conversation, JS sent two “memes” to Student 1:

  • “a still photograph of Student Two singing into a microphone [] captioned as follows: “I’m shooting up the school this week. I can’t take it anymore I’m DONE!” At the bottom of the meme is a photo-shopped image of J.S. wearing large “Elton John” glasses, apparently watching Student Two’s performance.” Student 1 responded “LOL.”
  • “a short video meme” (a GIF?) “depicted Student Two playing guitar music into a microphone and was captioned as follows: “IM READY [Student One] AND MANY MORE WILL PERISH IN THIS STORM. I WILL TRY TO TAKE [Student One] ALIVE AND TIE HIM UP AND EAT HIM.” The quote was attributed to Student Two, who was singing lyrics by Cannibal Corpse.”

Once again, this kind of nonsense chatter hurts the brains of older generations, who no longer understand why teens waste their time with peer mocking of this nature. But so long as this conversation stays exclusively between JS and Student 1, it’s relatively benign and inconsequential. Of course, the reason why we’re reading the judicial opinion is that this 1:1 conversation escaped its confines.

Student 1 posted the first meme as a Snapchat story, where it was seen by 20-40 of his friends. He took it down in 5 minutes, saying that it was a “probable false alarm.” In the interim, one of the friends screenshotted it. The friend shared the screenshot with another peer, who shared it with his parent, who told the school principal, who told the school superintendent and police. The police came out to investigate JS but concluded that JS hadn’t made a threat. That should have been the end of it, but of course it wasn’t.

The high school notified all parents that there had been a threat. It also suspended JS “for making a terroristic threat and for causing serious inconvenience to the school.” After the suspension, the school charged JS with:

  • cyberbullying, defined as an “intentional electronic, written, verbal or physical act or series of acts directed at another student” that “occurs in a school setting.”
  • making a “terroristic threat,” defined as “a threat to commit violence communicated with the intent to terrorize another.”

At the school board hearing, Student 1 didn’t show and couldn’t be compelled to testify. Nevertheless, the school introduced evidence that allegedly “Student One told High School administrators that he had felt terrorized by the two memes and had publicized the “I can’t take it anymore” meme to alert others to a possible threat.” There are obvious hearsay problems with this claim, which JS unsuccessfully raised. Furthermore, this explanation of Student 1’s conduct doesn’t fully cohere. If Student 1 felt terrorized, sharing the first meme in a Snapchat story isn’t a very effective way of alerting the high school. Furthermore, the LOL response and “probable false alarm” might undermine the genuineness of Student 1’s concern. I don’t see how JS’s mocking of Student 2 could lead Student 1 to believe that Student 2 (or JS?) was actually planning to attack Student 1 (especially with the first meme, which didn’t mention Student 1 at all). Repeating song lyrics raises another interesting issue–one that keeps showing up in cases–but it didn’t appear to matter in this case. JS couldn’t cross-examine Student 1 to explore any of these issues because of the procedural limitations of the school board hearing process.

After the hearing, the school board expelled JS. The district court reversed. Though there were many procedural and substantive defects the district court could have addressed, the district court focused on the lack of cross-examination and Tinker free speech grounds. The appeals court affirms without any further analysis, basically telling the school district to reread the district court’s opinion. According to a local news report, the school district’s insurance carrier covered the appeal costs, so the meritless appeal didn’t cost taxpayers immediately

We’ve blogged dozens of similar cases over the years: teens engaging in stupid conversations online amongst themselves, the conversations leak out, and someone–the school, the person being mocked, a prosecutor–overreacts. Two standout examples: Finkel v. Dauber and People v. JP. I know we’re all on heightened alert in our country, especially given the hateful and divisive rhetoric coming from our president, the government’s complete inability to protect schools from mass shootings, and the largely unchecked normalization of domestic terrorism. Still, the school board’s reaction to JS’s memes is the kind of thing I might have expected 15 years ago, not in 2018. By now, we ought to be able to distinguish between teens doing stupid teen things online and real/serious threats. I can’t condone JS’s behavior, but it seems obvious that the multi-year punishment he’s suffered is grossly–and quite avoidably–out of whack with the social norms violations he committed.

Nomenclature note: there are now at least 3 cases involving “J.S.” as the plaintiff in significant cases involving school discipline for line speech. The other two cases: JS v. Blue Mountain School District and JS v. Bethlehem Area School District. An interesting coincidence.

Case citation: J.S. v. Manheim Township School District, 2020 WL 2508031 (Pa. Commonwealth Ct. May 13, 2020)

Some local news coverage of this case: