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Law firm threatens to sue Lodi Unified School District over social media policy

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Posted: Monday, August 12, 2013 3:19 pm

A San Francisco attorney has threatened to sue the Lodi Unified School District over its controversial social media policy.

Attorney Thomas R. Burke, from the law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine, sent a letter to Lodi Unified Superintendent Dr. Cathy Nichols-Washer and the seven school board members on Monday, claiming that the social media policy violates the First Amendment.

The policy, adopted in March, has raised opposition from some students and parents at high schools within the district. Intended to address bullying by students on Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media, the policy allows teachers, coaches and administrators to suspend students from sports or school clubs if they electronically communicate something that is deemed “inappropriate.”

“Because of the policy’s glaring constitutional infirmities and clear conflict with state and federal law, if litigation becomes necessary, a court is highly likely to invalidate the policy and to hold those responsible for its enforcement personally financially liable for violating clearly established law,” Burke wrote in his letter to Lodi Unified officials. “We hope such legal action is unnecessary.”

According to the letter, Burke represents the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and the Student Press Law Center. Jana Van Os, whose daughter was suspended and later reinstated to her cheerleading post at Lodi High due to an image she posted on Instagram, contacted the ACLU over the policy.

Additionally, members of The Bruin Voice, the student newspaper of Bear Creek High School in North Stockton, contacted the Student Press Law Center for a legal opinion.

Van Os and Bear Creek students Jacob Williams and Hanna Jobrack told Lodi Unified school trustees last week that they consider the social media policy illegal for several reasons. They maintained that the policy is too vague, and it isn’t clear who decides what comments are “inappropriate.”

“While the policy may be a well-intentioned effort to discourage bullying, it sweeps far too broadly and impermissibly has the government acting as a 24-hour-a-day censor of student speech,” Burke said in his letter to the school district.

“As currently written, the policy applies to virtually all online communications by district students, regardless of whether they occur off campus or after school hours,” Burke said. “It reaches beyond constitutionally unprotected and unlawful behavior and prescribes extremely broad class of speech ... ”

Lodi Unified board members Ron Heberle and George Neely said they can’t comment on Burke’s letter to the school district because litigation was threatened.

However, Neely said he anticipates that the social media policy will be discussed at the Aug. 20 board meeting.

Trustee Ruth Davis declined to comment, saying she likes to defer issues to administrators until the administrators bring issues to the board.

Contact reporter Ross Farrow at rossf@lodinews.com.

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