PORTLAND, Maine — A federal judge on Thursday blocked a three-day suspension imposed on a high school student for posting comments about a “rapist” on a bathroom mirror, saying her comments were constitutionally protected free speech.
U.S. District Judge Lance Walker granted the 15-year-old student’s request for a temporary restraining order, and wrote that she showed a likelihood of success if the matter is fully litigated.
Aela Mansmann acknowledged posting the sticky note that proclaimed, “There’s a rapist in our school and you know who it is.”
Her attorneys contended it was a general message aimed at calling attention to the unaddressed problem of sexual assaults, and that punishing her would discourage victims from coming forward.
“Speaking up about sexual assault is already difficult for young people. If this punishment had been allowed to stand, it would have only made it more difficult. Today’s decision reaffirms that students have the right to freedom of speech, and that they do not check their rights at the schoolhouse gate,” said Alison Beyea, executive director at the ACLU of Maine.
Her mother, Shael Morris, said she and her daughter were “thrilled” by the judge’s decision.
“All my daughter ever wanted was for students to feel safe speaking out about sexual assault. I’m so proud of her for standing up for what she believes in,” Morris said in a statement.
Cape Elizabeth High School administrators suspended Mansmann for three days for bullying, saying the note led to an individual staying home from school for eight days out of concerns for his safety.
In his ruling, Walker said he was sympathetic to school administrators’ concerns but suggested they shouldn’t have “carte blanch” to tamp down students’ concerns about social justice.
“Contemporary examples abound of betrayal of free speech principles to avoid ideas or speakers with whom we disagree. Madison would recoil. Individual liberty is both the cause and the result of personal fortitude,” he wrote.
Two other students also were suspended for their actions but they haven’t come forward. It’s unclear if they accepted their punishments.
After Mansmann’s note was posted, the rumor mill spun out of control, creating fear in the high school a few miles from Portland.
In the end, the high school conducted 47 interviews, and Principal Jeffrey Shedd said the school was safe. He said previously the three who were suspended meant well but “made a really bad choice.”