Student claims he was suspended for Columbine comments in Net chat room

Tuesday, October 19, 1999

A high school student who says he was suspended last spring for Internet chat-room comments about the Columbine shooting recently filed suit, saying his First Amendment rights were violated by officials at his former school in Missouri.

Dustin Mitchell, a junior at Rolla High School at the time, alleges he was suspended for 10 days last spring for comments he made about the Littleton, Colo., shooting in a teens-only chat room.

Five days after last April's tragedy, Mitchell answered “yes” to the following question: “Do you think such a tragedy could happen at your school?”

According to Mitchell's lawsuit, school officials suspended Mitchell even though he made the speech off-campus on a weekend.

They apparently were upset not only by the comment, but by the fact that Mitchell used another student's name as an alias when talking in the chat room.

Mitchell used the name of a student who wore a black trenchcoat to school and about whom unfounded rumors were circulating that he was someone who could possibly shoot fellow students.

Mitchell's attorney, Brian Scheiderer, said school officials threatened to have Mitchell prosecuted if he did not perform 42 hours of community service with the police department. “I have yet to figure out what the charged crime would be,” Scheiderer said.

School officials reduced Mitchell's suspension to four days but refused to remove the disciplinary action from his permanent record. He now attends high school in Washington state.

But Mitchell didn't leave his dispute behind when he left Missouri. Instead, with assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, he filed a lawsuit against the Rolla district on Oct. 14 in federal court.

According to his complaint in Mitchell v. Rolla School District No. 31, Mitchell “was punished for the exercise of his First Amendment rights outside of school time, and off of school premises.”

He alleged that the conduct of school officials “was further calculated to and had the effect of suppressing, chilling, and punishing conduct and speech that was … protected.”

“While schools of course have legitimate concerns about safety, the Rolla School District clearly overreacted to Mitchell's Internet message,” said Denise Field, interim executive director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, in a news release. “Mitchell's speech, which took place in a teens-only chat room in a private home over the weekend, is clearly protected by the First Amendment.”

Field said that school officials should not suppress student speech, but should instead listen to students. “The best solution in this post-Littleton era is for schools to resist this pressure to punish free expression and look instead for positive responses that will allow students to feel valued and respected.”

Scheiderer agreed, calling the situation “a classic case of overreaction to Columbine.”

“I think this case forces us to ask the question: Does the Constitution mean something and can it stand the test of time or will it be changed with the most recent tragic event?” he said. “Will constitutional principles be upheld in the face of Columbine?”

Tom Mickes, attorney for the school district, said: “This is a case about alleged threats. You have to understand that the school district, like many other school districts across the country last spring, went through some difficult times. The Rolla School District takes its duty to protect kids seriously.”

Mickes said the issue at stake was not silencing free speech but protecting children. “It is shame when people fail to take responsibility for their actions and instead file lawsuits,” he said.