A High School Senior Almost Got Suspended For a Tweet
But the American Civil Liberties Union helped fight for his First Amendment rights.
When a North Attleboro High School teenager was disciplined for Tweeting a profane word to the school’s official Twitter account, after they announced there would be a snow day, he turned to the American Civil Liberties Union to help defend his First Amendment rights.
Senior Nick Barbieri wasn’t on school grounds in early February when he told the school to “[expletive] off” after they let students know via social media that there was a cancellation due to the weather. Barbieri’s reply was in response to a snarky addition the school tagged onto their Tweet, which said, “See you in June!,” implying students would have to make up the missed day at the end of the year.
The Tweet containing the F-bomb immediately led to a phone call to Barbieri’s home late that night, February 4, from school officials asking him to delete the response.
Barbieri obliged, but when he returned to school on February 7, he was informed that he would be facing a possible suspension, or more than six hours of detention. He was pulled out of class on three separate occasions to discuss the Tweet, and his punishment. Barbieri was also told by school officials to delete three additional Tweets he sent out to his more than 30,000 followers which discussed the ongoing disciplinary action, and the school’s response.
Perturbed by the fact that a Tweet sent from his personal account while at his home, not during school hours, got him in trouble, Barbieri reached out to the ACLU and asked for help. “My public school tried to suspend me for a Tweet containing profanity made on the weekend. Help me save the [First] Amendment,” he told the ACLU on Twitter.
The group responded, and immediately crafted a letter to the principal of North Attleboro High School asking that they backtrack their choice to punish Barbieri for what he wrote, citing a violation of his rights.
The ACLU wrote to the school asking that they delay the detentions handed down to Barbieri until they figured out the legal issues outside of the classroom. The ACLU’s attorney, Sarah Wunsch, argued that the administration had no authority, consistent with the First Amendment, to punish Barbieri or any other student for their speech outside of the school, even if it’s about the school. They also demanded the school apologize to the student. The full letter can be read below.
Shortly after receiving correspondence from the civil rights group, officials from North Attleboro reversed their decision, and wiped away the detentions.
“Students in Massachusetts have some of the best free-speech protections in the nation. That’s the lesson in many cases over the years, but most recently at North Attleboro High School,” according to a statement from the ACLU. “[We] responded to Barbieri’s request for help. The school quickly reversed course, revoking the detentions it issued Barbieri ,and removing the incident from his record. The ACLU appreciates the school’s responsiveness because, as our attorney Sarah Wunsch argued in her letter to the principal and vice principal, schools must teach students about “important free speech principles…by word and deed.”
Barbieri said moving forward he hopes more schools have conversations with students about their rights online. “I think it’s great what the ACLU did, I give them all the credit, but it’s an important conversation that everyone needs to have. Social media is a new thing, and it’s important teachers and schools have these conversations about what civil liberties and students’ rights are,” he said. “It rises above our small community. As more and more schools decide to join Twitter, it’s important they know that there are different standards and rules they will have to follow when they step into that world. I don’t think schools understand that conversations can happen just as if we were sitting in a room talking.”
While he won’t be Tweeting at the school’s account any longer—and certainly won’t swear at them—he doesn’t regret what happened. “I got to where I am by speaking my mind, but at the same time when it’s a respect issue I can understand how they would be offended by my choice of words,” he said, adding that he had initially apologized for the curse word.
Coincidentally, a day after the decision was made to reverse the punishment against Barbieri, North Attleboro officials again closed school for the day because of the latest snowstorm hitting the Bay State, to which Barbieri cheekily replied:
No school – see you all in June!
— Nick Barbieri (@SGCBarbierian) February 13, 2014