NJ student punished for calling fictional cop ‘pig’ allowed to sue
HACKETTSTOWN — A federal judge is allowing a civil rights lawsuit to continue against this Warren County town's school district after officials punished a student for referring to a character in a work of fiction as a "pig."
The high school student's parent filed the lawsuit earlier this year in federal district court of New Jersey claiming violations of state and federal law and the student's right to free speech.
School officials said the 17-year-old student violated the district's anti-bullying policy when she used the anti-cop slur in class because one of her classmates has a parent who is a police officer. She was punished with a day of in-school suspension.
The student's lawsuit argues that she could not have been bullying anybody because the student with a law enforcement parent was not in class that day.
The lawsuit says school officials also violated her right to free speech in a public school by trying to stop her from discussing the Black Lives Matter movement.
The complaint also says school officials repeatedly used anti-gay and anti-black slurs in front of the student in order to attempt to draw comparison between the slurs and the word "pig."
During a discussion in which Assistant Principal Kevin O'Leary chided the student for discussing Black Lives Matter, O'Leary told the student that some people are lucky to have light-colored skin and pass as white, the lawsuit says. The student was insulted by this remark as well as by the use of the anti-gay slur by O'Leary and district bullying specialist Jennifer Spukes because the student is both biracial and gay.
The district tried to have U.S. District Judge Peter G. Sheridan dismiss the lawsuit but failed.
"It can hardly be argued that discussions involving political or social justice matters do not fall within the protections afforded under the First Amendment," Sheridan wrote last month, adding that he is "satisfied" that the student and her parent have "a plausible claim of a hostile environment" under federal Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Sheridan also said it was "premature" to decide whether to dismiss the lawsuit's request for punitive damages against the district.
The judge, however, did dismiss state Law Against Discrimination claims against the school officials as individuals because the lawsuit does not claim that they "aided or abetted the discriminatory conduct." But the judge said that the district itself could still be held responsible.