Judge Cancels “Draconian” Suspension of Outspoken Student

Wednesday, June 18, 1997

Judge James Idelman, a California federal district court judge in Los Angeles, issued a temporary restraining order June 17 to prevent Bassett Unified School District officials from expelling Bassett High senior Joe Neal for criticizing his school principal.

On April 18, Neal wrote and distributed an open letter to school principal Linda Bouman denouncing curriculum decisions, specifically cutbacks in the French program. In the letter, Neal referred to Bouman as “Fuhrer (sic) Bouman” and accused her of running a “quasi-fascist dictatorship.” Neal also wrote: “Ms. Bouman, how dare you attempt to infringe on the rights of each and every one of us to publish our opinion, an inalienable right guaranteed by the First Amendment.”

School officials took no immediate action, but a school district investigator questioned Neal several times, even reading the student his Miranda rights (though Neal was never charged with a crime). Then, on June 5—one day before final exams and nearly seven weeks after the letter, school officials suspended Neal, barred him from campus, and told him he was probably going to be expelled.

School officials indicated to Neal that they considered his letter, which contained the phrase “SILENCE=DEATH!,” a personal threat to Bouman.

Judge Ideman wrote in his order: “Given the First Amendment concerns, the draconian effects of the suspension, and the potential for harm that cannot be undone, the issuance of a Temporary Restraining Order is appropriate.”

The judge commanded school officials to permit Neal to complete his school work and attend graduation ceremonies and to cease disciplinary efforts pending a June 23 hearing in the case.