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(Photo: People sit outside as students participate during the ENOUGH: National School Walkout rally at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Getty Images)
Disrespect can get you suspended, apparently.
Noah Christensen of Reno, Nevada joined the National Walkout Day, leaving his calculus class at 10:17, and found himself at the center of a debate about free speech.
Christensen was suspended by Robert McQueen High School for calling his congressman during the walkout and swearing. Over the phone, Christensen called for banning bump stocks and raising the minimum age to buy a gun. But he also told the staffer that Congress needed to “get off their f***ing asses” and take action.
Robert McQueen High School was not amused when Representative Mark Amodei’s office notified them of Christensen’s phone call, CNN reports. He was suspended for two days for “disrespectful behavior/language” and barred from being class secretary/treasurer.
Representative Amodei said he had “absolutely” no problem with “this guy exercising his First Amendment rights,” but that his congressional staffer also had free-speech rights to report the language. Amodei said that while they received several hundred phone calls, Christensen was “the only caller to use profanity.” Amodei also pointed out that he actually has been pushing Nevada legislature towards the same forms of gun control Christensen was calling about.
Was dropping the F-bomb wrong? Christensen showed some regret. According to the Washington Post, he agreed with his principal he shouldn’t have cursed, and even offered to serve detention for the first time.
“I personally thought that I had the political privacy to make a phone call to any representative and tell them how I feel,” said Christensen to KOLO, adding that he understood “that’s not maybe the wording” he should have used. He maintains “it’s still [his] right to use that word.”
The ACLU agrees. “They violated the law and they violated his rights and his viewpoint,” said ACLU policy director Holly Welborn, who also pointed out that the suspension was “split” between Thursday and Monday because Christensen was needed for a state debate competition on Friday.
Christensen’s parents are on his side. “I don’t encourage my child to go and curse at someone...I believe that something needs to be done and maybe somebody does need to get off their butt and do something,” said Stacie Lerma, who was allegedly not notified about her son’s suspension until the next day. “Another school shooting today and you’re worried about my son using a cuss word,” she reportedly posted on Instagram. (Her post has been since taken down.)
The school district issued a statement that no students were suspended for the March 14 walkout itself. “The district cannot discuss specific disciplines of individual students,” read the statement from Washoe County School District. While WCSD’s Policy 5150 states that students “do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” it notes that the district may take action if the student causes a “substantial disruption” to the district. The district states that unprotected speech may include obscenity. It is unclear if the district punishes other students for their behavior outside of school — cursing at government officials is constitutionally-protected speech, if you remember the guy who wrote obscenities on a speeding ticket.
“I’ve never even had a detention before let alone a suspension,” said 17-year-old Christensen. “Being yelled at for calling my representative and trying to create change in the world is one of the worst feelings I’ve ever experienced.”
Amodei told the Los Angeles Times: “Welcome to the world where words have impact.”
“You owe this student a public apology for retaliating against him by enlisting the school to punish him on your behalf,” said Tod Story, Executive Director of ACLU of Nevada, in a letter urging Representative Amodei to respect Christensen’s free speech. “Regardless of your opinions of the March for Our Lives movement, student walkouts and gun control policies, it was inappropriate and unbecoming of your congressional office to seek to have this student punished.”
“I’m not apologizing because my guy accurately described what happened in the phone call,” said Amodei to the Nevada Independent.