Free speech or civil rights violation? That's the debate swirling around the expulsion of an Albany High School student who posted racist images on a personal social media account.
The school board Tuesday night decided to expel the student that owned the account, and that may have set the stage for a court battle pitting fundamental free speech rights against the California Education Code.
"We feel that it is illegal, in violation of my client’s First Amendment rights and the California Education Code," attorney Cate Beekman said.
The education code protects students' free speech, giving them even more protection than the First Amendment does.
"Essentially what’s happening is the school’s trying to control what students think, say, do, privately among friends away from school," Beekman said.
Albany High was in the spotlight in March when a student discovered a social media account containing pictures of female students - most of them African-American, and some posted next to apes. One post showed the girls basketball coach with a noose drawn around his neck. He too was African-American.
Beekman says the postings were offensive, but they were private and not directed to do physical harm to students. That’s where the case takes a legal and unprecedented turn.
"Offensive speech is protected," Beekman said. "Our Supreme Court just two days ago issued a unanimous decision saying exactly that."
One parent whose child was shown in the racist memes was pleased with the school board's decision to expel the student. She didn’t want to be identified because, she said, parents have been targeted by hate groups online after speaking out.
While she wishes more students were expelled, she believes the move sets a precedent that Albany High is a zero-tolerance school in regards to hate speech.
"I know some people have characterized it as a hate crime, as discrimination; it’s neither of those things," Beekman said. "I understand people’s feelings are hurt or offended, but that’s precisely what the First Amendment exists to protect."
Nine students were suspended for their alleged actions in the case, and all of them are headed to court.