Aela Mansmann, a 15-year-old sophomore in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, was suspended from her high school after she tried to draw attention to sexual assault by posting a sticky note in the school bathroom that stated, "There's a rapist in our school and you know who it is." However, a federal judge on Oct. 24, 2019, granted Mansmann temporary relief from the school discipline, finding no evidence that her speech caused a disruption, and noting that the message was a form of political speech, which is highly protected under the First Amendment. (Photo of Mansmann and her brother provided to The Associated Press by Shael Norris, used with permission from The Associated Press.)
A federal district court judge in Maine temporarily prevented public school officials from punishing a student for placing a sticky note in the girl’s bathroom that read, “THERE’S A RAPIST IN OUR SCHOOL AND YOU KNOW WHO IT IS.”
When Aela Mansmann – known in court papers as A.M. – placed the message, a few other students followed suit. A student informed school administrators who used camera footage to determine that Mansmann was the initial author of the note.
School suspends Maine sophomore for bathroom sticky note
Mansmann later spoke to the press about her concern with how the school handled sexual assault allegations. The sticky note incident also allegedly led to the ostracizing of a male student.
The principal imposed a three-day suspension on Mansmann for what was characterized as the bullying of a male student. A.M. – through her mother – filed a civil lawsuit, alleging a violation of Mansmann’s First Amendment free-speech rights.
Judge notes First Amendment protections for student speech in ruling against school
On October 24, 2019, U.S. District Judge for the District of Maine Lance E. Walker issued his decision in Norris v. Cape Elizabeth School District.
He noted that under the U.S. Supreme Court’s seminal student free-speech decision, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969), public school students retain First Amendment rights but that those rights must be interpreted in light of what the Court called “the special characteristics of the school environment.”
Under the Tinker standard, public school officials can censor or discipline students for their expression if they can reasonably forecast that the student speech will cause a substantial disruption of school activities.
School officials claim the note was defamatory and disruptive
School officials argued that Mansmann had no free-speech rights in the sticky note because the note was defamatory – false speech that another student was a rapist. However, Walker reasoned that it was unclear as to who the note was referring and that Mansmann may well have posted the sticky note in good faith.
Walker also reasoned that Mansmann's speech was a form of political speech. “Her speech not only contributes to this ‘political debate’ about how schools handle sexual assault, but, if true, highlights a real safety concern for the students of Cape Elizabeth High School,” he wrote.
School officials argued that they were justified in punishing Mansmann for her speech because it was “inherently disruptive” and invaded the rights of another student, the alleged target of the note.
Judge finds no evidence of substantial disruption, refers to Tinker standard
First, Walker found there was not evidence of a substantial disruption. He noted that there were disruptions caused by the black armbands in Tinker but the Supreme Court still held those armbands were a form of protected speech.
As for invading the rights of another student, Walker determined that there was “not a clear factual connection between the student's note” and the male student about whom the sticky note arguably references. The judge also noted that the note did not name an individual student.
The judge concluded that the student was entitled to temporary relief and that school officials were prohibited from disciplining Mansmann for the sticky note pending the outcome of the case.
David L. Hudson Jr. is a First Amendment Fellow at the Freedom Forum Institute, and a law professor at Belmont University who publishes widely on First Amendment topics. He is the author of a 12-lecture audio course on the First Amendment titled “Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment” (Now You Know Media, 2018). He also is the author of many First Amendment books, including “The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech” (Thomson Reuters, 2012) and “Freedom of Speech: Documents Decoded” (ABC-CLIO, 2017).