ACLU sues Kansas City Public Schools for punishing the Ferguson-related silent protest at Lincoln Prep

Students may learn about civil rights at Kansas City Public Schools, but they may also have to think twice about exercising them on school property.

The American Civil Liberties Union in Missouri claims that an administrator at Lincoln Preparatory Academy admonished student protesters during a November 25 visit by Gov. Jay Nixon, telling them that they made the school look bad and that they should go to Ferguson if they wanted to protest.

The ACLU sued Kansas City, Missouri, Public Schools in federal court on Monday, claiming that the district violated a student’s civil rights when the plaintiff (identified only as M.M. in the complaint) was punished with Saturday detention for walking out of a Nixon speech held at Lincoln Prep. The walkout, done while the students had their arms raised in the air, was a clear homage to Michael Brown, the 18-year-old who was shot by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in August.

Nixon visited Lincoln Prep around the height of tensions following Brown’s death, which has been seen by protesters as a reckless officer needlessly using lethal force and by others who say Wilson’s actions were justified in light of Brown’s behavior toward the officer. A St. Louis County grand jury declined to indict Wilson. Nixon himself has been the target of criticism for his delayed or clumsy response to the crisis.

A letter (reposted below) sent to parents said the students were guilty of “defiance of authority.” A subsequent letter from Lincoln Prep principal Joe Hesman said the detention was “assigned in order to reinforce the importance of proper decorum at our school while also acknowledging every citizen’s right to free speech and facilitating a productive conversation about the events in Ferguson, MO.”

A silent protest seems like a decorous exercise of free speech, but school officials seemed to disagree.

M.M. is set to come in on Saturday, January 10, Breakfast Club-style detention (it was originally scheduled for December 6). But the ACLU’s lawsuit is trying to stop the detention. It doesn’t look like the student wants to cash in on the lawsuit (the complaint seeks “nominal damages” from the district) but wants to head off the Saturday detention and get the district to recognize a right to protest matters of public concern in a “non-disruptive” manner.

The district did not have an immediate comment on the lawsuit on Monday.
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