Four Albany High School students have sued the school district after they were disciplined for images posted on Instagram.
School officials called the posts racist. But the students say their actions, which occurred outside of school, fall under free speech rights.
Attorneys for the students say when school leaders marched the students in front of their peers, they were yelled at, chased and a couple of them were even beaten.
On March 30, the accused students were set to walk out to their high school peers for what the district called a restorative justice session. Instead, as the student body grew restless, administrators diverted those students to a side door. Some of their peers allegedly followed, and that's when their safety was jeopardized, attorney Darryl Yorkey said.
"All of these students have been labeled," Yorkey said. "Essentially, they've been given a scarlet letter."
Yorkey added that the students' First Amendment rights were impacted not because of what they said at school but because the school has really tried to overreach its authority to discipline the teens for things they did outside of school.
The lawsuit says that because the Instagram post was private, the Albany Unified School District has no grounds for discipline. The post depicted racial pictures of some African-American students at the school that were made public only after the district chose to do so.
Thirteen students were reprimanded for either commenting or liking the photos. Disciplinary action includes: suspension, with some facing possible expulsion. Regardless of how administrators handled the situation, Albany High students don't want the real issue to be lost in the lawsuit.
"I think that we were doing well with coping with this and trying to get over it, but as this kind of came up, a lot of people were upset that it was kind of violating, disregarding the whole situation and saying it was freedom of speech rather than hate speech," one freshman said.
Albany Unified released a statement that says in part: "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. The district intends to defend this commitment and its conduct within the court system."