A federal judge cleared the way Monday for a lawsuit to proceed against a Kansas City-area school district accused of violating students’ free speech and free press rights last year during a nationwide walkout protesting gun violence.
U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson ruled the students have presented a plausible claim that the Shawnee Mission School District violated their First Amendment rights by stopping speakers from talking about gun control or gun violence. The 17-minute walkout on April 20 was sparked by last year’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead.
Robinson also found that the students have a plausible claim under the Kansas Student Publications Act after a school official confiscated a camera from a student journalist to prevent her from photographing the event for the student newspaper. The state law, passed in 1992, aims to protect student journalists from censorship of political or controversial material.
The judge said that the school district’s act of confiscating the camera — alleged to have been loaned to the student by the school to be used in her capacity as a student journalist — suppressed material that would have been used in a student publication.
Robinson also found that former interim Superintendent Kenneth Southwick is not personally liable for the alleged constitutional violations. The judge dismissed those claims against Southwick while allowing other parts of the litigation against the district to continue.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas sued on behalf of students, accusing the district of suppressing student’s political speech on campus “merely to avoid controversy.” The school district countered in court documents its actions were justified because of concern that others might have wrongly assumed the students’ voices reflected the district’s position.
Student organizers at various schools informed administrators in advance that they intended to participate as part of the national walkout, and the school informed parents that the students would be allowed to participate without risking discipline, according to the filing.
But the district then directed administrators to prohibit students from discussing guns, gun control and school shootings — the central topics of the planned protest — during the walkout, the judge noted.
Among the plaintiffs is an eighth-grade student enrolled in Hocker Grove school, identified in court documents only as M.C., who organized her school’s walkout. She spoke two lines of her prepared speech, stating “the school administration wants us to keep this about school violence and not about the real issue here. The real issue is gun violence” before an administrated interrupted her and ordered to step down from the speaking platform. She complied without protest, and the administrator abruptly ended the event. About 50 students remained outside.
Several students were suspended or given detention, including M.C. who was sent home for “being the most disruptive child in the school,” according to the court documents.
At Shawnee Mission North High School, more than 100 students remained outside the school after the approved walkout ended to discuss the topics the administrators had prohibited. The school let them remain outside for that “unsanctioned” event, except for student journalists, the court documents said.
A high school junior identified only as S.W. in the lawsuit was ordered to hand over the camera she was using that had been checked out to her for the year to use in her role as student journalist. The administrator also confiscated at least one other camera during the protest, according to the filing.